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  Words, Meaning and Thought – The Little Engine That Can’t
by Steven D. Laib, J.D. M.S.
29 May

“The Little Engine That Could” has been banned in some schools because the engine is portrayed as male.  Such attempts to "protect" our children actually rob them of their future by discouraging individual choice and free thought. 

According to Diane Ravitch, and The National Post, “The Little Engine That Could” has been banned in some U.S. schools because the engine is portrayed as male.  In an age where self-esteem is supposed to be so important, the Little Engine, an icon of past ages and a tribute to the power of positive thinking, is, in short, a model of self-esteem that no longer can. 

The importance of words cannot be understated in our understanding of the education process.  As Rush Limbaugh used to say on behalf of one of his sponsors, “words mean things.”  He cannot be more right.  If we learn to think with an impoverished vocabulary, or within a limited context, we cannot help but limit our thoughts to that universe.  In an age when people are concerned about the state of education in American schools, they should be especially aware of this. 

The center of the current education debate may be simplified down to the issue of practical realism versus idealism.  Educational “experts” want to make sure that no child is disappointed or feels discriminated against.  They are looking for an ideal situation where everyone either learns everything, or the education process must be censored to avoid unhappy feelings. 

In the real world, nothing is perfect, people sometimes get disappointed, and may not have all that they desire.  They must travel to other areas, see new things and meet other people, to learn as much as is possible.  A curious and stimulated intellect is a major part of this process.  Our education involves learning how parts of the world are different, along with the reasons why.  This, in turn, leads to how it affects the lives of the people living there, their cultures, not to mention the manner of plant and animal life, as well.  So when it is reported that “The Friendly Dolphin” should be banned because it discriminates against people who don’t live near the ocean, we might suggest that the entire environmental curriculum be junked because most of us don’t live near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or a rain forest.  On the other hand, just maybe a person who doesn’t live near one of these things might be stimulated to visit them to learn more.  Disappointment in not having something outside their door might also act as a stimulus to the student to go beyond the classroom and educate themselves. 

What Ravitch learned in her research may be found in “The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn.”  What she lists includes the abandonment of “traditional roles,” such as men as professionals, and women as homemakers.  Older people are not to be shown with failing health, and elimination of stereotyping has been taken to ridiculous lengths by the removal of any references to Irish police officers or black athletes.  She also noted that adult authority is not to be questioned. 

Ravitch’s main point is that stripping out anything interesting, controversial, or realistic not only dumbs down the children’s educational experience; it “bores the tears out of them and makes them cynical,” she states in World Net Daily on May 10, 2003.  She also asserts that when the real world is more interesting than their books, and those books are at odds with what they see around them, children turn away from reading.  This stifles creative thought, while avoiding controversy and accepting authority without question. 

Italian educator and author Luigi Guissani is another author who takes issue with this kind of education.  He asserts that it is necessary to stimulate children to ask questions and to evaluate the world around them or they become skeptical and in the end, fail to learn.  He suggests that we reevaluate our rationalistic view of the world in light of Thomas Aquinas’ assertion that we cannot truly understand reality unless we live in it.  He believes that it is necessary to question authority as part of the learning process.  It is also necessary for human progress.  If no one questioned the “authorities” of 500 years ago, we might still be depending on horses and wind power instead of electricity. 

Boston University Chancellor John Silber discussed similar issues in his 1989 book “Straight Shooting,” where he asserted that there are certain universal truths which children need to learn.  He states that it does no good to try and convince children of things which contradict what they see it in their daily lives, and that attempts to do so give rise to unrealistic expectations while depriving them of the full range of life’s choices. 

In 1919 Rudyard Kipling published a poem “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”.  The title refers to the page headings in books, once given to young children for penmanship practice.  While copying the page headings, they were given a lesson in moral philosophy and cultural values.  The repetition impressed upon them such ideas as “honesty is the best policy,”  “a penny saved is a penny earned,” or “honor thy father and mother.”  In today’s world of moral relativism these rules may not be valued, but as Kipling said almost a century ago, they have universal relevance and observing them generally leads to a better, more productive and more orderly society.  Thus, teaching children the truth and allowing them to understand the real world brings better results than trying to fool them. 

In an attempt to protect our children the educrats end up robbing them of their future.  They discourage individual choice and free thought.  Categorizing career paths is just as bad as stereotyping.  There is nothing wrong with a black child pursuing a career in sports, in anything else, or for that matter, in sports and something else.  Just ask Alan Page, one of the best defensive linemen ever to play in the NFL, who also became a Supreme Court justice for the state of Minnesota.

Shortchanging our students by giving them less than the truth does them no good. It short-changes society and our nation’s future as well.  Recognizing this truth is as important to us adults as knowing the truth about world is young minds.  Let’s get the Little Engine back on the track, teaching children that if you think, you can.

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