The NY Times says that the picture book for children is disappearing, largely because so many aspirant middle-class parents are pushing their children aggressively towards reading chapter books early in life, and receiving some endorsement in this move from teachers who need to prepare students to deal with No Child Left Behind-inspired testing programs.
Ok, I could just endorse the obvious counter-revolutionary message that children need visual literacy too, and work up all the necessary bits of predation on the vulnerable minds of anxious parents. The world is increasingly visual, your children will need to be visually literate in a world full of new media technologies, THE PICTURES THEY ARE COMING FOR YOUR KIDS SAVE THEM NOW.
I could serve up the usual contrarian strategy of arguing that the New York Times story is full of it because it misperceives the subject of its concern, that just because the picture book per se has lagging sales, it doesn’t follow that published work that combines words and pictures is no longer of interest to children and their anxious parents. Maybe they’re buying Jeff Smith’s Bone instead of a ‘classic’ picture book, and so no need to worry, really.
I think what I’d rather do is say that this is a classic admonitory fable about the ghosts that are haunting expertise in the 21st Century, and about how a “Hippocratic Oath” for experts and policy wonks is needed which puts special emphasis on being mindful about unintended consequences.
It would be nice to lay the death of the picture book (if that’s really what’s happening) squarely at the feet of NCLB. But behind NCLB is a much less institutionally aggressive skein of expert investment in encouraging early childhood literacy, and in flogging improved literacy as a key component of readiness for 21st Century careers.
Expert authority may have much less influence in American public life today than it did in 1960, but one segment of the population is still intensely glued to what experts recommend or demand: the professionalized middle classes, who exist in a state of perpetual anxiety about social reproduction. They want to know one thing: what must they do to secure a steady, reliable future for their children in which their children will do jobs and have status approximately commensurate with their parents (or better)?
When experts in education, childhood, psychology, economics, what have you, venture forth into the public sphere to say that our schools are failing to do something utterly essential, or that tomorrow’s children must absolutely have some skill that they do not have now, or that oh my GOD SWEDEN and CHINA and ARGENTINA all have started teaching children how to program in Java while they are still in the WOMB, you know what that’s the equivalent of? It’s like going up to someone who is starting to develop a dissassociative identity disorder and pretending to be one of those little voices from a satellite that he’s hearing that tell him that everyone’s out to drain his precious bodily fluids.
Middle-class parenting is precisely where expertise and the authority of both state and civic institutions often have their most toxic intersection, and where unintended effects blossom like ragweed in September. The double vulnerability of those parents is especially intense now: as they lose many of their most treasured markers of social difference, they’re also waking up to just how much economic ground they’ve lost in the last two decades, and how much likelier their children are to continue that downward mobility.
What a lot of those parents need now are experts who will help them chill the fuck out about the lives and education of their children, who will remind them of how robust children are, who will reassure them not to sweat the small stuff. Your kid is not going to get crushed in 2025 by an army of monstrously capable technological prodigies from South Asia because you didn’t have them reading chapter books by kindergarten. They’re not going to live in some burnout post-imperial ashheap simply because they couldn’t play violin, speak Italian, and program their own database in Scratch by the end of 2nd grade.
Experts who have advice about what parents, teachers and children owe to each other have got to ramp it all, let advice (and curricula) be more generous and heterodox, lower the stakes. If earning your share of attention in the public sphere involves words like urgent, necessity, failure, catastrophe? Better make sure that what you’re flogging really justifies those words. Otherwise, it’s just malpractice, purchasing a membership in a long and dishonorable lineage of selling similarly disposable urgencies whose necessity was long since dispensed with in favor of the next new thing.