Monday, May 21, 2007

Further adventures in shopping and sociology

After buying a card, I went to go rent some movies (final tally: The Talk of the Town, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Days of Heaven). There was a man there, a Ron Howard type in his fifties, with his son, who couldn't have been more than seven. The father was super-excited about showing his son some movies (he was shouting to the clerk from across the room about initiating his son into this shared wonder). The movies at hand, you ask? The Star Wars prequels.

I don't share Udolpho's hatred of fanboy geek types. I like Star Trek and Firefly and LOTR, and Star Wars, too. But I'm not kidding myself about their quality. Nothing more than cheap, fun escapism. After working really hard for a few months, I come home, sink into to the couch for a long weekend, turn off my brain, and watch some CSI or a Bond marathon. The thing is, though, that I'm fully aware at those moments that I'm indulging in stupid, mindless laziness. What bothers me is that a lot of people, such as the father I saw, seem to view these works as modern works of genius, as life-defining classics. They scarf down cheeseburgers and think they're dining on steak.

I strongly believe that kids will live down to your expectations. If you treat them like idiots, they'll become idiots. Throw stupid scifi movies (or, even worse, today's filthy, flatulence-obsessed 'children's movies') at them, and they will undoubtedly enjoy them, and they'll grow up to be dumb, crass, and blind to beauty. But show them some true classics, read them the great books, and you might be surprised at how much they understand and appreciate.

As Joseph Bottum (a name fit for a modern kids' movie, come to think of it) put it in Commentary a few years ago, "Certainly the hungry child will find too many of today’s standards awfully thin gruel. It is worth remembering that Dickens’s reading list for the eight- or nine-year-old David Copperfield includes Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker, Fielding’s Tom Jones, Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote—any one of which would make a well-qualified recommender of children’s books these days fall to the ground in a Victorian swoon. As Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 Little Women opens, the March girls have just read Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, which is not a title likely to be mentioned in children’s bibliographies any longer."

Parents: your kids aren't dumb until you dumb them down. Let them discover the Star Wars prequels for themselves once they're in their teens (but pray they never do). As long as they're under your control, though, make the most of it and shove the classics down their throats. Even if they don't like it (I maintain that they will), they'll at least know what a good book or movie looks like, what true culture and class feels like, and hopefully won't grow up to pour ketchup on their steaks.

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