Over the weekend a friend placed a new children’s book in my hands which had been given to her granddaughter. It was a nicely bound, hardcover book with colorful pictures entitled, The Little Radical: The ABCs of Activism.
I knew books like these were becoming quite popular, particularly in public school classrooms, yet I had never had the opportunity to get up close and personal with one. So I eventually picked up the book and began to read.
The inside cover is the first surprising thing one encounters. Filled with images of colorful buttons sporting slogans such as, “Toddlers Against Time-Outs,” “Little Sisters Against Hand Me Downs,” and “My Potty, My Choice,” the book seems to signal a strong message that the kids are in charge and shouldn’t be afraid to assert their will in any situation.
Such a message continues into the first pages of the book. Letter A encourages children to take action. Letter B encourages them to boycott.
One then moves along through D for Defend, I for Impact, and J for Justice. The latter runs as follows:
“J is for justice,
Which means: What is right.
Though, good vs. evil
Is not black and white.
It shouldn’t come down
To where you were born,
People are equals,
But the world is still torn.
If something’s not fair,
Or does not seem deserved,
Speak Up. Tip the scales.
See that justice is served.”
Finally, one reaches the letter R for Radical, after which the book is named. As the image below shows, being a radical is a cool thing to do and involves breaking rules, starting revolutions, and pursuing what is true.
The interesting thing about this alphabet for little radicals is the fact that many of these instructions sound quite good. It sounds exemplary to fight for justice, to encourage equality, and to pursue truth.
The question is, do young children have the wherewithal to understand what justice, equality, and truth really mean? Do we do them a disservice if they learn about these qualities at a young age only through the lens of social justice, all while concealing the discussions past generations and thinkers have had about such topics?
C.S. Lewis would have said yes. In his famous introduction to Athanasius’ work, On the Incarnation, Lewis cautioned viewing the problems of culture only through the lens of popular and current thought. He wrote:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
Lewis goes on to explain:
“All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wells and Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
Lest one think that Lewis invokes the past out of a love for nostalgia, his next words put such a thought to rest:
“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.”
Today’s children are experiencing a barrage of new books – in school, in libraries, and even at home – which encourage them to fight for social justice, to question the past and its authorities, to assert their own opinions and fight for them. But if we expose them to such viewpoints without first allowing them to grow, mature, and interact with the ideas and thinkers who have gone before, will they grow up to become shallow adults, unable to engage with other opinions and think responsibly for themselves?
[Image Credit: Flickr-Fibonacci Blue CC BY 2.0]
Annie Holmquist is editor of Intellectual Takeout, an online magazine and sister publication of Chronicles.