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Educating the imagination

Books | Authors look at the life of the mind

Issue: "Babies are back," Jan. 29, 2011

Education is about the 3 Rs but much more, so here's a question that grips (or should grip) every teacher and every homeschool parent: How do I foster a student's imagination?

Anthony Esolen says some of us fail at that, and he imaginatively shows why in his tongue-in-cheek book Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010). Each chapter deals with one imagination-killing habit: "Keep your children indoors as much as possible," for instance, or "Replace the fairy tale with political clichés and fads." Providence College professor Esolen shows how literature, history, art, and free play nurture imagination, how they foster an appreciation for the good, the true, and the beautiful, and how imagination opens us up to worship the unseen God. He opposes the over-scheduling of kids who are driven from one adult-led activity to another.

Author Pat Conroy's My Reading Life (Nan A. Talese, 2010) shows how people and books shaped his imagination. Conroy, author of The Lords of Discipline, The Great Santini, and other works, starts with his mother, from whom he received a love for words, stories, and books of all kinds. She was uneducated but well-read, haunting the library to satisfy her desire to plumb the secrets contained in books. She introduced him to Gone with the Wind when he was 5 years old, a novel that "set my mother's imagination ablaze when she was a young girl in Atlanta." From her identification with the book, "I absorbed my first lesson in the authority of fiction."

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Conroy provides evocative details from his life and appreciation for others who played important parts, including his high-school English teacher, Gene Norris, "who found a profoundly shy and battered young man and changed the course of his life with the extravagant passion he brought to his classroom." Conroy writes similarly affectionate chapters about a book rep and an Atlanta bookstore owner. Writers also influenced him: He praises Tolstoy ("born to be the greatest novelist who ever lived") and Thomas Wolfe ("I mark the reading of Look Homeward, Angel as one of the pivotal events of my life").

Children's first compositions should always receive praise, but adults need people who will offer them frank criticism. Conroy writes about the pitfalls facing successful writers who are surrounded by "moon-eyed groupies" when they lecture at colleges: "James Dickey walked into a cathedral of worshipers whenever he came to class. It was great for us, his students, but when I left class on the final day, I had real doubts it was good for him."

What fostered the imagination of Jane Austen, a clergyman's daughter whose books barely sold for decades after her death, and then became the inspiration for blockbuster movies and knock-off novels? In A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen (Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010), Susannah Carson has gathered in one place essays on Austen and her novels. Few readers are likely to scrutinize every chapter, but it's fascinating to see what C.S. Lewis understood about Austen's moral universe and Virginia Woolf admired about her craft. Some of the essays lean toward the academic; one by screenwriter Amy Heckerling explains how she tweaked Emma into the 1990s teen movie Clueless.

I suspect many contemporary young women love Jane Austen because she takes them into a world where not everything is blurted out and much remains for characters to ponder and imagine. Claire Harman in Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Henry Holt, 2010) explores the varying reactions Austen has engendered over the years. As one critic wrote in 1889: "Those who do appreciate her novels will think no praise too high for them, while those who do not, will marvel at the infatuation of her admirers; For no one ever cares moderately for Jane Austen's works."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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