Are You Smarter than a Five-Year-Old?
Children today are not always taught the old fairy tales, the old nursery stories. Indeed, there is a systematic campaign in some quarters not to teach them. Too often, they are not politically correct; they have no place in the common Marxist/”cognitive science” agenda to alter the culture and control thought for political purposes.
But mostly, we just don't understand them, and don't get the point. I recall in grad school the professorial assertion that they were products of the human unconscious, mostly of psychological interest; the argument was over whether they were truly “pure,” or “mixed with ego.”
No kidding—apparently they were written by people when they were unconscious. I wonder if Hans Christian Anderson realized he was asleep?
Apparently, too, they made no more sense to the Freudians and Jungians than the contents of a typical dream.
Yet fairy tales and nursery tales are the encapsulated wisdom of mankind. In this, the Marxists are partly right: they are our initial social programming. Cultural literacy is an issue here; but more than that, without our fairy tales, we lack our user's manual for life, and are doomed to repeat all our ancestors' worst mistakes, without benefit of their prior experience.
Which, of course, predictably, is what is commonly happening these days, since we have largely forgotten them.
Because of global warming, for example, as we all know, the world is going to end. A correspondent wrote recently, “we are spitting ourselves out... of existence.” Before that, we were going to destroy the world with overpopulation, or pollution, or ozone holes, or resource depletion; we are still running out of oil, and water. But in fact, even in the worst case scenario, even if we grant that it is completely proven, there is no real probability that global warming could end human life on the planet. Nor, realistically, could overpopulation. We ought by now to realize that the idea that “the end of the world is nigh” is almost a human instinct, and we ought accordingly to be skeptical of any such assumptions, ever.
But isn't that the moral of the story of Henny-Penny? That foolish people are always prone to stampede into such panics, and that this makes them prey to any unscrupulous person ready to exploit this instinct for his own ends? Any child who was paying proper attention during Henny Penny's sad tale should be proof against millennial con games of all sorts--including those used so skillfully by charlatans like Stalin, Mao, and Hitler.
How about the laments of feminists? Many of us have accepted their claims following the simple logic that, if there were not something wrong with their current lot in life, they would not be complaining. This is a common formula throughout the feminist ethic, and the victimhood game more generally: if a woman feels oppressed, or feels threatened, or feels harassed, ipso facto, obviously, she is. Recognized “victim groups” have gotten quite far on the same formula—believing it, to be fair, completely, themselves.
But this simple logic should, in a properly-educated child, be immediately tempered by the story of the Princess and the Pea. It is, instead, precisely those most used to privilege who will complain most loudly of their lot—for they are those least inured to oppression, threat, harassment, or discomfort of any kind. One who has always been a slave—why and when should he dare take it into his head to object?
Accordingly, recent immigrants from South Asia, Africa, or the Arab world complain loudly of the discrimination they have faced, here and at home, and are given affirmative action programs. But these are wealthy members of the upper class in the countries they come from. Did the dirt-poor Irish, Polish, Ukrainians, or Armenians of two or three generations ago complain similarly? Just the reverse—because they really were poor, and really did come from a history of oppression.
Missing this important insight, we tend to systematically increase the privileges of the most privileged, and the oppression of the most oppressed, all the while believing we are doing the opposite.
And how much of the world's current folly could have been avoided if only a five-year-old who knew the story of The Emperor's New Clothes had been consulted? It has been rightly observed that the craziest things of all are those things commonly believed by academics: global warming, Marxism, feminism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, affirmative action, political correctness, speech codes, queer studies, Fascism in its day. Most are based on a simple logical fallacy that should be apparent to a casual observer within a few minutes. The Emperor's story explains succinctly why this is entirely likely to be so. If it is possible for any intellectual phony or slacker to convincingly present something as “believed by all the best authorities,” then, even if we personally suspect it makes no sense at all, most people who want to appear intelligent and well-educated will pretend to believe it as well, and assert it with that much more energy to avoid the suspicion that they do not really get the point. Anyone who becomes an academic, in turn, considering the hard slog it requires, is probably deeply invested in projecting the idea that they are unusually smart, and deeply insecure about it. The child who truly understands this is protected against most such nonsense, and knows enough to think for himself.
Aesop's Fables, of course, are full of such lessons. The perpetual urge for a big, powerful government with detailed laws and regulations to impose proper order upon us all is well analysed in the fable of King Log and King Stork. The scapegoating of “rich corporate interests,” “rich capitalists,” “rich Jews,” and so forth, and the notion that governments can pay for everything by simply confiscating thier wealth, has been a common fallacy, or con job, in Marxism and well beyond. Hitler, Mugabe, Amin, all tried it. Most left-leaning governments base their core policies on it, in milder form. All with eventual results easily predicted by any child who knew the tale of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs.
And the apparently shocking, unheard-of notion that scoundrels might take the chasuble of priesthood in order to exploit the vulnerable? It should not so surprise anyone who was once read the story of the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. They would be far less inclined, as children, to fall for it; nor would they be inclined as adults to suppose it reflected somehow on the truth of the Catholic faith. Any more than the wolf's actions reflected on the true nature of sheep. How cockeyed is that?
We will probably never end the horror of child abuse. But our present efforts, besides being terribly expensive, are probably also making matters worse, by scapegoating fathers, by weakening families and by handing children over to professional bureaucrats who necessarily have no special feeling for them. Here's a perfectly cost-free measure we all can take: any child with access to nursery stories would at least be partly armoured against emotional abuse, by far the worst aspect of the problem. They would know the dangers of evil “step-parents,” and what they are capable of. They would understand that parents do not always love their children. They would have understood that parents can also envy their children. They would have learned that the fault was not necessarily theirs, and understood that there was still hope for the future. This is indeed one of the most common lessons of the nursery tales: consider Cinderella, or Snow White, or Rapunzel, or the Ugly Duckling.
Sexual abuse of children, pedophilia, is another hot topic currently. Want to “street-proof” your kids against sexual abuse? What could better “street-proofing” than the stories of Hansel and Gretel, or Little Red Riding Hood? The nursery tales are even far more realistic than modern treatments as to its probable source. Don't even trust grandma--you never know...
Sadly, these lessons are largely or completely lost in modern retellings. In the versions most common nowadays, everything scary or violent has been stripped out, supposedly to protect little ears from any possible hint that all is not wonderful in this world. It isn't. Real wolves are not huggable. In doing so, we are in fact setting our children up for all the real horrors the stories only ask them to imagine.
Of course, the politically correct will object that our nursery tales are only about our own culture; they are no longer “appropriate” for a globalized, multicultural, world. Perhaps they are cultural imperialism, in a multicultural classroom; perhaps they teach intolerance.
Nothing could be further from the truth: only academics could believe this. Nursery stories delight in that which happened not only “long ago,” but “far, far away.” As a result, they systematically encourage multiculturalism, globalism, and an interest in other cultures. Of all forms of literature, they are the most open to assimilating from other cultures. Few familiar English nursery tales are originally English: Grimm is from Germany, Anderson from Denmark, Lafontaine from France, Aesop from Greece, Uncle Remus from Africa, the 1001 Nights from Arabia, Persia, and India. The Nightingale is transparently from China, and the original Cinderella lived in Korea. Folklorists find near-identical stories told in areas and cultures as widely dispersed as Tajikistan and Tonawanda—among the Iroquois Indians.
Besides being of vital importance to individual children, and to the adults they become, this stratum of nursery wisdom could, if emphasized in our education systems, actually become an important element of international, and indeed global, understanding.
Make sure your kids don't leave home without it.