Review of Michelle Ann Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right: Children’s Literature and American Political Conservatism (Rutgers University Press, 2011). ISBN: 978-0-8135-4798-5 (cloth). 260 pages.
Review by Campbell Scribner
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Last year, Andrew Hartman referenced Michelle Abate’s Raising Your Kids Right in a post about children’s literature as intellectual history. He was mildly critical of the book (and the genre) because of its implicit focus on the political agendas of authors, parents, and other adults rather than on the mentalities of children themselves.
Having since read the book, I would expand that criticism: I am not sure Abate gets the adults right, either.
Despite the kitschy cover illustration, Raising Your Children Right does not reach further back than the 1990s and makes little effort at historical analysis. Rather, Abate’s formula is to take a children’s book marketed to conservative parents (e.g. The Truax, the lumber industry’s response to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax; or Ann Coulter-style books for kids), point out its underlying political assumptions, and in alarmist tones inveigh against indoctrination.
There are some obvious problems with that approach.
First, despite providing a pretty cogent history of right-wing politics since the 1960s, Abate uses the word “conservative” far too broadly. For her, in fact, it seems interchangeable with the words “histrionic,” “retrograde,” and “racist” (pgs. 35, 37, 180-181). Yet it is unclear what is pejoratively conservative about a book like Tim Russert’s memoir Big Russ and Me, which describes “the indelible bond that links him to his father,” unless the Right has so thoroughly monopolized the language of “family values” that liberals now come out against parenthood (pg. 3).
Past children’s literature has likewise taught values of obedience, piety, and loyalty. Are these traits from which we should now shield our children, or only expose them to in the context of civil rights struggles and “postmodernist thought” (pg. 31)? That seems to be Abate’s primary criticism of The Book of Virtues, a collection of inspirational writing edited by William Bennett, which is guilty of including “overwhelmingly…historical selections from white, middle-class Europeans” (pg. 39). Abate seems unbothered that these writers include Tolstoy, Emerson, Faulkner, and others whose politics hardly align (how could they?) with those of the modern Right. While I am certainly in favor of expanding traditional canons and including as many voices as possible, to niggle about whether a volume contains enough writing by African-Americans (five pieces, in this case) or Native Americans (two, with caveats) seems to fall back on the worst sort of politically correct multiculturalism and to ignore the many areas in which the Right—despite its insistence on colorblindness—has conceded the need for at least token diversity (pg. 40).
Abate’s focus on culture-war fodder leads not only to a weirdly narrow view of conservatism, but of what qualifies as literature at all. More than simply reactionary, the titles that she analyzes are reactive, far too derivative and polemical to be considered art. None have aged well, and basing a book on them seems somewhat like tying a millstone around one’s neck. Perhaps some disgruntled parents buy these titles for their children, but Abate does little to prove that children read or are in any way inspired by them.
Rather than capturing conservative writing at its smallest, Abate could have written a much more meaningful book about what conservatives actually think will interest or ennoble their children. Prefacing her discussion of The Book of Virtues, for example, with selections from C.S. Lewis, Pilgrim’s Progress, McGuffey’s Readers, or other conservative favorites would accrue more historical weight to her argument and preclude the sort of caricature and dismissal that seems to underlie much of her analysis. If she were interested in more recent conservative titles, Alan Levinovitz (University of Chicago) has posted a provocative collection of them that bear serious consideration from parents and librarians.
The sort of treatment I have in mind appears in a recent Religion & Politics article by Molly Worthen (Yale, PhD. in American religious history), who sets out to explain evangelicals’ “special affection for Christian gurus of British extraction,” including Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Stott, and others. Ever since falling victim to the poison pen of H.L. Mencken, Worthen writes, American evangelicals “have been struggling to overcome an intellectual inferiority complex, to convince the wider world that confidence in the Bible’s authority is compatible with scholarly achievement.” British writers, unburdened by the anti-modernism and anti-intellectualism of American fundamentalists, provide a means to do so.
Worthen is not naive about this phenomenon. “Many evangelicals seem to idealize a long lost arcadia where professor-clergymen praise theology as queen of the sciences and manly Livingstonian missionaries conquer Africa in the name of Christendom,” she writes, “rather than Britannia as she truly is, secularist, multi-cultural warts and all. This is Anglophilia’s dark side. When it drives evangelicals to study in a grey Oxford tower because there no professor will force them to read books that challenge their preexisting ideas, or when it fetishizes sherry and tweed jackets as a highbrow varnish on small-minded prejudices, it becomes mere pretense.”
Nonetheless, Worthen applauds Christians’ efforts to wriggle out of their intellectual straightjackets, and welcomes the intellectual and spiritual space that transnational reading affords. It is that space, I suspect—with its mixture of insecurity, aspiration, tradition, and romanticism—that truly informs coming-of-age reading lists on the Right, much as the same values do on the Left.