Critics in the Cradle

A smiling baby, tongue sticking out and eyes
blinded by an oversized mortar-board, graces the cover of Ralph Schoenstein’s
Toilet Trained For Yale: Adventures in 21st Century Parenting. Though
the resemblance is unintentional, the baby represents both Schoenstein
and Harold Bloom, editor of Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent
Children of All Ages. Giddily facing the world, he remains completely
unaware of his surroundings.

Toilet Trained for Yale-following Schoenstein’s The I-Hate-Preppies Handbook
and With T-Shirts and Beer Mugs for All-is part tongue-in-cheek examination
of "push-parenting," the origin of such ridiculous endeavors
as in utero iq stimulation, and part sentimental "remember when"
memoir. The book runs chronologically from fetus-hood to Little League
with chapters interspersed recounting various parts of the author’s own
childhood and parenting experience.

The best parts of the book are Schoenstein’s well-researched and astutely
analyzed tales of the opportunities available to upper-class parents in
the United States. There is a "bull market in bullshit for babies,"
and Schoenstein addresses a whole battery of gimmicks for what he calls
"career moms," "fast-track dads," and "resume-raising
parents." At The Institute For The Achievement Of Human Potential
in Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania, for example, kids begin reading programs at
the tender age of three months. Using sound bytes from conversations with
child psychologists and pediatricians, Schoenstein provokes a few funny,
though predictable, exchanges with the employees of the Institute. Quoting
some studies conducted by one child development specialist at Tufts University,
Schoenstein suggests to an Institute employee that children learn to read
better at a later age and that "the pressure for early reading reflects
the parents’ need not the child’s." The conversation abruptly ends
when the Institute employee disregards Schoenstein’s point: "Well,
he [the specialist] better study some new children. And you’d better visit
us and forget about Tufts."

Schoenstein also spends time at a Bright Start Learning Center, where
parents are reminded in a brochure that "when children put blocks
in trucks and dump them out, they are learning to understand size, weight,
and number concepts …When children put on dress-up clothes, they
are learning small muscle skills." High-end day-care centers like
this one can cost parents as much as $17,000 per year. (Apparently, the
extra money goes toward the sophisticated hermeneutics of playtime.) After
watching two teachers try to give mashed-potato-chucking one-year-olds
a zoology quiz, Schoenstein suggests that Bright Start has misinterpreted
the scholastic behavior of toddlers. "When children throw mashed
potatoes," Schoenstein glibly interrupts, "they are learning
to request boiled or fried." Amidst such barely tolerable stabs at
humor writing, Schoenstein does make the valid point that sometimes children
simply play and that to assign importance and to measure potential in
every childish activity reflects a troubling collective neurosis. This
daycare center had turned blocks into quizzes and snack time into lesson
time, even reprimanding one child for climbing the jungle gym off schedule.
It seems to Schoenstein that, unfortunately, "While trying to produce
Mensa mites, push-parents can’t schedule that sweet time-waster called
play, for which there are no Cliffs Notes."

Among the gimmicks aimed at over-educated, over-ambitious, overzealous
parents is Bloom’s book, an anthology of stories and poems supposedly
for consumption by minors. Its title is characteristically Bloomsian.
He makes no apologies and does not skirt the issue. This book is intended
for parents who fancy their children to be "Extremely Intelligent."
This is clever marketing to the intellectual masses. After all, what Bloom
fan wouldn’t consider his own children to be of the highest caliber? The
book is billed as Bloom’s Cliffs Notes for modern childhood but looks
more like the Cliffs Notes for his own. He claims to have discovered,
read, and reread every work in the anthology during his own youth and
recommends that today’s children "persevere" and do the same.
Bloom laments the loss of a slow-paced, literature intensive childhood
in the introduction to his book:

I am old-fashioned and romantic enough to believe that many children,
given the right circumstances, are natural readers until this instinct
is destroyed by the media. The tyranny of the screen threatens any order
in which literary value or human wisdom can be preferred to the steady
flow of information. It may be an illusion to believe that the magical
connection of solitary children to the best books can endure, but such
a relationship does go so long a way back that it will not easily expire.

The selections in the book suggest a nostalgic Bloom dreaming of the
young, patient Edwardian reader of yester-year. The very title of the
book, however, capitalizes on every Schoenstein parent’s need for instant
gratification.

The 500-page collection of pre-wwi poems and tales, by the likes of Kipling,
Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake, Emerson, and Whitman, is a rich compilation
of literature and a far cry from the interactive "Jump-Start Reading"
cd-roms discussed in Schoenstein’s book. The anthology arranges the selections
thematically by season. Opening with Keats’s "The Human Seasons,"
the first section of the book, Spring, is full of love, longing, and loneliness.
Summer is rich with humor, color, and energy, including classics like
Carroll’s "Humpty Dumpty" and Kipling’s "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,"
as well as more obscure, though equally pleasurable, stories like "Uncle
David’s Nonsensical Story About Giants and Fairies" by Catherine
Sinclair. Not much of it is accessible to children, though. The book is
like an undergraduate English degree on the wall of a doctor’s office:
impressive but of no practical value.

Bloom anticipates this criticism by distancing himself from modern notions
of "Children’s Literature." According to Bloom, the very idea
of Children’s Literature "had some use and distinction a century
ago, but now all too often is a mask for the dumbing-down that is destroying
our literary culture. Most of what is now commercially offered as children’s
literature would be inadequate fare for any reader of any age at any time."
He urges the "authentic reader" of this book to take on the
collection as an opportunity to discover his own potential as well as
the potential of initially obscure or difficult pieces to open up and
entertain.

The MTV generation, the information age, the video game society: These
tropes have been used ad nauseum, but like most clichés, there
is some truth to them. Left to their own volition, most children today
will turn on the tv or the computer; left to their parents’, they are
more likely to fall victim to one of the mothers parodied in Schoenstein’s
book-shuttled from Chinese tutoring to bassoon lessons to gymnastics practice.
Schoenstein self-indulgently devotes a whole chapter to an all-American
neighborhood stickball game starring himself as the new kid in town. The
chapter is a hardly bearable play-by-play of a heroic outfield catch,
but at the root of his reminiscence lies a sad truth: Children today no
longer seem to play. Schoenstein writes, "A kid today, who has a
curriculum instead of a childhood, who has never known the heady feeling
of actually making his own plans, still often says, ‘I’m bored.’"

For the few children who actually read the bulk of Bloom’s anthology,
a wealth of great literature lies within. It may be true, as Bloom claims,
that for children to find their way to Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Austen,
they must start with Kipling, Stevenson, and Carroll, but Bloom’s Ivy
Tower reality does not recognize that that is no longer where kids want
to end up. If the ultimate objectives of Bloom and Schoenstein are to
resuscitate a lost age of childhood whimsy, whether it be stickball or
Arthur Conan Doyle, both offer a vision that is tragically narrow and
sentimentally personalized.

While both authors take the opportunity to romanticize childhood of yesteryear,
neither has any sense of contemporary American childhood. The books are
aimed at neurotic parents full of high hopes for their kids. Even the
average yuppie, however, will be alienated by the selections in Bloom’s
book and the Hunter, Dalton, Greenwich inside jokes that are dropped throughout
Schoenstein’s. As Schoenstein ridicules the ambitious, Ivy-inclined parents
of today, it becomes painfully obvious that he runs in the same circle.
Though the book often aspires to real social criticism, Schoenstein is
more interested in gabbing about his daughter’s Little League team, his
own days at Stuyvesant High School in New York, and his grandson’s knack
for geography. He passes up chances for serious commentary, making trite
and esoteric jokes instead. His ideal reader is one of the very parents
he is criticizing: someone who will be in on the jokes and uncomfortable
with any real criticism. Bloom’s book, meanwhile, claims to encourage
exploratory reading habits of days long forgotten. This stated purpose,
however, is belied by the book’s selling point: Stories and Tales for
Extremely Intelligent Children is a quick-fix book for children and parents
who don’t have time to explore. Both books, ultimately, are little more
than household décor. Schoenstein’s should sit stacked with his
other books on top of a toilet as occasionally amusing bathroom reading
while Bloom’s should grace the color-coordinated Ethan Allen bookshelf
above some Westchester baby’s crib.


Jessica Cohen, a senior in Timothy Dwight College, is managing editor
for TNJ..