A few weeks ago, I walked into the door one evening to find my three younger siblings all ready to go on some outing. They grabbed my arm and said you have to come with us. I followed them outside and ducked under an umbrella, and the next thing I knew I was walking down the street, listening to my ten year old brother attempting an Australian accent, whispering: “You must get under the ‘brumbrella,’ and hold these rations until we reach shelter. We must walk quickly to escape the evil forces.” And I found myself witnessing and participating in this quite nostalgic moment. It had all started with my sister accidentally asking my brother to get a “brumbrella” instead of an “umbrella,” yet from that arbitrary mistake, my siblings created an imaginary world of play, momentarily escaping from reality, yet still fighting the forces of evil and defending good.
Since then, my youthful, and admittedly naive, optimism has been dampened by the solemnity of some of the recent posts and my experience teaching inner city youth in Houston. Yet, I remain convinced that children have the potential to enliven the “Moral Imagination.” So many children—both rich and poor—spend their childhood being stimulated by excessive amounts of media—television, movies, video games, even travel Nintendos, computers, internet, cell phones, trashy magazines, and low quality, high sex-appeal music. I am not against media, in fact, I think it can be a useful, and now unavoidable tool, at times. But, what I do detest is people’s addiction to media stimulation to the point where children and adults, as my mom has always said, allow their brains to turn to Jell-O.
No wonder the teens in my class could not comprehend the roots of American order, or even pass the citizenship test: besides the fact that their schools and parents and communities are failing them, the modern forms of art are failing them to an equally detrimental degree, producing very little that allows them to use their imagination to discover much about right and wrong, just and unjust, love and hatred, joy and anger, and whether to be or not to be.
Children need to read, play, think, and ask questions, and in the process, form an active and eager imagination in which they process the questions and meaning of life. They need to escape to a pretend world in order to come back to reality with a more tangible understanding of the good and evil, the nature of man, and what it means to live the good life. Of course, they will not realize that they are learning these things, but they are, nonetheless. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Ralph Moody’s Little Britches, and so many other children’s books cause young and old minds alike to abandon their own afflictions and imagine a different time and place in order to deepen their understanding of the true, the good, and the beautiful.
Russell Kirk defined the “Moral Imagination” from his favorite historical comrade: Edmund Burke, who described the human imagination in these terms:
“All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”
It is American citizens’ duty to use their gifts in order to heighten children’s imagination—whether it be through art, film, music, literature, history, moral teaching, play, or work—so that we gird our children with the armor necessary to defend truth, goodness, and beauty. We cannot allow American youth to continue to become numb to the moral questions of life, we cannot allow them to think that love is merely a fleeting emotion, that family excludes fathers, that the government gives rights to the people, that man is a helpless beast. Instead, through careful training, exemplar behavior, and creative means, we must teach them that life is worth living because we have a creator who loves, and lets us love. Only then will their soft little minds be able to comprehend who He is and how we follow Him on this earth.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.