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Sunday, December 2, 2018

Sesquipedalians and Children

sesquipedalian: Long, multi-syllabic word.

In Sixpence in her Shoe, Mrs. Mcginley tells of an adventure a childrens’ author she knows had at her publishers. She spotted a copy editor with a syllabus in one hand and a manuscript he was hastily revising for a new children’s book in the other. The lady author asked, “Don’t tell me there’s a censorship problem in juveniles?”
The editor said certainly there was:
“We have to be very careful. Here is a book intended for children from six to nine. And this paper contains all the words that six-to-nine-year-olds are supposed to be able to understand. I have to take out all the big words not on the list and put in little ones.”
The lady author decided she was done writing for the childrens’ market, and thus the children lost another champion and were left with cardboard instead of bread. McGinley points out that nobody wants to take the credit for this binding of children’s minds as tightly as ever a Chinese girl’s foot was bound:
But the fact remains that somebody has set up as a gospel the rule that odd words, long words, interesting words, grown-up words must be as precisely sifted out from a book for, say, five-year-olds as chaff from wheat or profanity from a television program….
‘Read-it-yourself’ books now come cleverly planned around a vocabulary of three hundred fifty words or thereabouts, and the fact that they are often clever and occasionally brilliantly ingenious does not alter their crippling formula.
Just as there are no longer any delightful playgrounds with heartpounding slides and monkey bars, and children must ride bikes swaddled from head to toe in padding, helmets, and denim and it’s a very bad mother who lets her children so much as bump their head when they’re learning to walk (hello, world, I am one of those very bad mothers), we want to protect their minds from being challenged, stretches, or overworked, and so we end up with the sort of maimed existence Charlotte Mason deplored and that I saw evidenced a few weeks ago when a perfectly ‘normal’ American public schooled teen told me she’d did not know what a continent was and had never heard of Portugal and where was Europe anyway? Whew. I do get incensed at this stuff. These kids have been, are being, continue to be, defrauded. What about their parents? Their parents were cheated of an education themselves maimed by whole language, new math, and worse, and their parents before them suffered through the debilitating results of the Committee of 27 as far back as 1918. As Richard Mitchell pointed out:
They concluded, in other words, that precious few schoolchildren were capable of the pursuit of knowledge and the exercise of the mind in the cause of judgment. That, of course, turned out to be the most momentous self-fulfilling prophecy of our century. It is also a splendid example of the muddled thought out of which established educational practice derives its theories. The proposals of the Eliot report are deemed elitist because they presume that most schoolchildren are generally capable of the mastery of subject matter and intellectual skill; the proposals of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, on the other hand, are “democratic” in presuming that most schoolchildren are not capable of such things and should stick to homemaking and the manual arts.
Phyllis McGinley did not know where the dilution of children’s intellectual food started, but she saw the deplorable results:
Are children never to climb? Must they be saved from all the healthy bumps and bruises of exploration? I suppose the theory drifted down from textbooks, those teacher’s college-tested readers which are the common and insipid fare of elementary schools. Like many bad things, they were inspired by good intentions. Children, said the educationalists, must be gently led along the path to learning, seduced not prodded. So a vocabulary must be acquired in standard stages and according to procedures formed in a laboratory and stamped out by IBM machines. Probably modern textbooks are placider than… the theological treatises on which little Pilgrims used to sharpen their wits, but they cater only to the average or below-average mind. The genuine reading child is not an average person and he wants, even at six or seven or eight,gourmet fare. Yet so prophylactic has the whole business become that the good sap of invention is being squeezed out of both storybooks and schoolbooks. In cutting down the weeds we have also cut down the flowers.
And we have done more than smother word discovery; we have deleted magic and fantasy from children’s lives. Most modern textbooks try to appeal to the young by talking about what they already know- their everyday activities….
There follows a long but delicious passage where Mrs. Mcginley compares a boring story in a second grade reader with a delightfully melodramatic tale from McGuffey’s second reader and points out how much more exciting children will find the McGuffey story. She says that if they are stuck with the typical drivel found in readers of her time, the children will look for excitement in their comic books and remain ‘only half-literate all their lives. They will be unable to spell out a message unless it is accompanied by a picture.’
There follows another long and equally delicious passage where she deplores the fact that illustrations and toys masquerading as books now lead the children’s picture-book market, which would be splendid, she says, if the goal of ‘reading were the formation of a taste for good art’ rather than whetting the child’s ‘appetite for literature.’ She has a better idea:
If ever I had time and courage enough, I’d write a children’s book stuck plum pudding rich with great jawbreakers of words. I would use ‘egregious’. I would work in ‘monstriferous’. I would use ‘sepicolous’ and ‘ubiquitous’ and ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ and nictate and supernumerary and ‘internecine’ and a hundred glorious others. And I think children would get the joke and flock to it- if, that is, the story were good enough. They are a braver generation than we suppose.
This probably explains the popularity of the Lemony Snicket books, and they weren’t even all that good. Our children deserve much better from us. Don’t keep them away from the older books because they are too hard, too old-fashioned, too difficult. These are not defects. Don’t dumb down your vocabulary so that they will understand you- they understand better than we think and are more capable than we assume. Don’t fear the sesquipedalians.

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 $5.00- Education for All, a new CM journal, Buy Now!   Feed Your Mind!  This issue contains several articles on handicrafts, outdoor play, nature study and science.

 $3.00 Five Little Peppers and How They Grew Copywork (grades 2/3, carefully selected with an eye toward finely crafted sentences, lovely bits of writing pleasant to picture in the mind's eye, and practice in copying some of the mechanics of grammar and punctuation typically covered in these years.
  $3.00 Aesop's Fables Copywork for Year One!  Carefully selected with an eye toward well written sentences, memorable scenes, and some practice copying sentences that model the basics of capitalization and punctuation.   Suitable for use with children who have already mastered the strokes and letters for basic penmanship.

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