Lost in the stew

Kyla writes: “should the four years of undergraduate education be a big oedipal @!*$-fest? Absolutely! But three years after that aren’t we producing the parents again? 8 out of 10 times, I’ll bet you we are. On Bloom’s plan, nine times out of ten.”

It seems to me that though one can debate the percentages, the general point is dead on. And depressing.

Which leads me to a tenuously-connected meditation, on the topic to which I always turn when I’d like to avoid what I ought to be doing (in this case reading Batnitzky’s book on Levinas and Strauss), namely children’s books.

Anyone who reads a lot of picture books will have noticed that the same plots recur again and again, often couched with the same symbolism, and occasionally (but still surprisingly often) with some of the same actual words. There are original picture books, yeah, but, taken as a whole, its not a genre that encourages originality.

I’ve counted seven standard plots. The one I’m thinking about today is what I call the “Ugly Duckling” plot, in which an outcast is scorned or scolded and then receives validation for her difference. Some stories treat the theme with physical symbols, usually of a relatively innocuous kind, i.e. short kid finds out its okay to be short. But most are moral: the little chick/piggy/whatever is an iconoclast who’s always poking into things he shouldn’t be, or lagging behind, or breaking rules, and in the end manages to effect a rescue, or maybe just see something others miss. Variations aside, this plot-form is ubiquitous: I can’t tell you how many hundred picture books push the edifying lesson that it’s great to be different.

The question isn’t whether it’s great to be different. Of course it is. The question is whether in pushing the lesson relentlessly, didactically, and heavy-handedly down our children’s throats from the earliest age, we don’t suck all the life out of it. I think I can see a bit of this in Eila already: hum ho, yeah, it’s important to march to the beat of a different drummer, I claim autonomy, now bring on the princess clothes!


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