For those of my friends, who have children in the pre-school – elementary school ages:
In Mind, Modernity, Madness I have written that, to arrest the ever-rising rates of functional mental illness in the United States, we would need to revamp our system of education, beginning from kindergarten. (As I am writing to my friends, I presume that you have read Mind, Modernity, Madness.) Onset is occurring earlier and earlier, so that mental disorder is common in middle school and in high school already rampant, and this means that the work of prevention, making children resistant to mental illness, has to begin at an age before the assault starts.
Since the agent of the disease in this case is cultural: the inability of modern – secular, egalitarian, and open – culture to provide large swaths of people with sufficient guidance for the formation of clear identity, the preparation and prevention must also be cultural: the intentional provision of such guidance to young children. To do so through the channels of the educational establishment would require the message of Mind, Modernity, Madness to achieve the status of self-evident truth – something that is evidently not happening right now and unlikely to happen in the near future, and for an entire generation of educators to be educated in its light and know how to help a child to form a clear identity.
The understanding of identity in our society is grossly underdeveloped and the vague ideas regarding it that exist are based precisely on the presuppositions that make the formation of identity in our society so problematic. The chief of these presuppositions, perhaps, is that each individual is born with an unchangeable identity – an essential self, which will, and must be allowed to, have an expression, for its repression condemns one to unhappiness and leads to mental disease. This presupposition encourages people to “discover” themselves, to do which they must focus on themselves, i.e., they are effectively educated to be self-centered. Alongside this presupposition of the essential individual self exists the contradictory idea of identity as the essential self of one’s biologically-defined group, racial (which, upon analysis, includes ethnicity) or sexual (which includes sexual orientation). This presupposition encourages the individual to discover in oneself the identity of one’s presumed group (which, of course, does in no way help one to develop a functioning identity, because it does not locate one in a clear position on the socio-cultural terrain) and to focus on the political defense of this group’s rights, specifically demanding that the group be treated in every respect equally with other groups. Paradoxically, the two presuppositions (of the essential individual self and of the essential biological group self) are combined in the popular consciousness and educational curricula reflecting this consciousness.
To combat this on the level of the educational establishment is beyond the powers of any individual or a small group of individuals. A revolution, a complete breakdown of the social order and the construction of a new one in its place, would be needed to effect the required change of thinking. The only way to help children to form functional identities (and identities are formed, not innate, reflecting some inner essence) and prevent their developing functional mental illness is to do so from the outside of the educational establishment. Children are raised in and by culture, a process consisting of numerous specific processes, interrelated in numerous distinctive ways: the family process, the educational establishment (institutional) process, religion, media, literature, and so on. Our culture, in general, does not offer us sufficient guidance in forming our identities, but some of its constituent processes do help. Formal educational institutions, that is, institutions specifically entrusted with the transmission of the dominant cultural messages, as might be expected, reinforce this cultural insufficiency and the family, which is all-important in the child’s early years, is quite likely to reflect it, because the parents are products of the culture themselves. But literature, for instance, the books we read to our children, when they are little, and books they start to read themselves, is far more heterogeneous. While most books in our bookstores would transmit dominant cultural messages (for instance, the two presuppositions inimical to the formation of a clear stable identity, mentioned above), there are some that can provide a counterweight to them. If organized into a systematic program and read at home from a very early age through kindergarten and elementary school (and, perhaps, in some kindergartens and elementary schools, where individual teachers would appreciate their benefits) such books could help children to form firm identities, which would in turn enable them to withstand the assault of contradictory messages of our secular, egalitarian, open (anomic) society and protect them from mental disease.
Books that can help in the process of identity formation in an anomic society do so in a way very different from societies that simply impose identities on people in them by limiting individual experience to a particular, very limited area on the cognitive map of the socio-cultural terrain. They do this, instead, by presenting one with the picture of human behaviors, probable in open societies, distinguishing (in the manner of presentation) between right and wrong, good and evil actions, and provoking sympathy with the suffering of others and antipathy towards those who cause this suffering. The confusing reality of contemporary society is simplified, presented, underneath apparent heterogeneity of observable behaviors, as the confrontation of good and evil, defined basically as kindness vs. cruelty (intentional causing of suffering), with other behaviors and attitudes ranged in between.
When one’s cognitive map of the socio-cultural terrain is drawn in these simple terms, being a good person becomes the core of one’s ideal identity – what one strives to be, the goal of one’s self-realization. One is encouraged to take advantage of the freedom and equality offered by the open society not to “discover,” but to “make” oneself, to cultivate one’s empathy (which presupposes focusing on others), to be actively kind, useful to those who are weaker, in need of help, and must be protected from suffering. Competitiveness, constant self-comparison to others, self-measurement against them in quantitative terms of relative achievement and virtue (do I have more or less money, accolades, professional success, intelligence, beauty, and so on, than x, y, z, to whom I should be equal) which are encouraged by the egalitarianism and freedom of the open anomic society, in turn encouraging envy, self-doubt, insecurity, sense of inferiority which contribute to social maladjustment and in so many cases ultimately lead to mental illness, fade into near-irrelevance. One’s identity-map is no longer the map of an endless race-track with oneself as one of the racers, constantly in danger of being left behind or overturned. It is no longer one’s comparison to others, but the calls for one’s help that determine one’s position on the map; wherever they come from on one’s socio-cultural terrain, there one gravitates, one’s conduct is oriented by these calls, by thinking about the needs of others.
This must appear too simplistic a characterization of the complex masterpieces of the 18th and especially 19th centuries, be it Dickens’s Great Expectations, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and, of course, the message is more or less explicit even in different books by the same author. Such, nevertheless, is the common basic message of the great modern – psychological — novel, called into being by the need to make sense (for the authors, in the first place) of the secular, egalitarian, anomic society. All these novels treat of the provocations with which anomie of the open society presents to the individual, unanchored by a clear identity, all see mental illness as a constantly lurking danger. Depictions in black and white contrasts as in the “sensationalist” best-sellers of Wilkie Collins are not to be met among greater artists, whose novels are likely to focus on the behaviors of the middle range, eschewing absolute good and absolute evil. Still, they all advise: be guided by the understanding of fundamental right and wrong, focus on the world, not yourself, be kind, above all, and things may turn all right – at the very least, they won’t go horribly wrong: you won’t go mad.
Psychological novels of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, from Moll Flanders to An American Tragedy are a great antidote to the disorientation of the open egalitarian society and a very powerful educational tool. Whether encouraged at home or integrated into school curricula, this literature can be very helpful for young people trying to come to grips – and form their identity – in the baffling anomic world. This literature is rich and may provide emotional support for years. Unfortunately, it is not a preventative therapy, because it cannot be administered to pre-teenage children. Yet, it is among the pre-teens that defenses against anomie must be built.
Identity-formation-facilitating literature for young children, ages 3 to 12, where it is especially needed, is very sparse. In English, even if one includes translations, there is nothing of this nature for children under 6 or 7 years of age. Taking whatever exists into consideration, I set myself the goal of creating an English-language corpus of such identity-formation-supporting children’s literature, organized as a continuous stream of age-appropriate reading from stories to toddlers through older preschoolers, kindergarten, and to older elementary school children. Readings for 3-5-year-olds would have to be created, and I intend to use the work of the exceptional Russian writer Korney Chukovsky, who wrote for very young children, as the foundation for this segment. Chukovsky’s goal in writing was to cultivate in the child kindness (humane disposition) and empathy, “this marvelous ability to worry about other people’s misfortunes, to rejoice at other people’s joys, and to experience another person’s destiny as one’s own.” He did not think that Russian children of the early 20th century needed aid in identity-formation, but his “tales” provided this aid nonetheless, while teaching the child to focus on others, not on oneself, and to consider being good, actively kind, to the defenseless and helpless as the most important quality of a person. In fact, Chukovsky’s tales are the only equivalent of modern psychological novel for very young children – at least, the only one which is relatively well-known. Even in Russian, which can boast of a very distinguished tradition of children’s literature, there is nothing else of the kind.
Having for over a century contributed to the upbringing of Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet children (and served as a counterweight for literature faithfully expressing the social values and cultural presuppositions, dominant in each of these periods), Chukovsky’s tales have been translated into many languages. Even in English there are some translations. The problem is that in the original these tales are poems. While in the original text, reflecting the creative process in the mind of the author, prosody and content develop organically, mutually inspiring and reinforcing each other, in translation, the very desire to keep the rhymed form obscures the meaning of the tale and interferes with the delivery of its message. Therefore, instead of attempting another rhymed translation, I decided to re-tell Chukovsky’s tales in prose. I selected five of them that appeared to me most directly relevant to the project of assisting very young children in identity formation – preparing them to meet the challenges, while resisting the pressures, of our society, and immunizing them to some extent against mental disease. I hope to publish them as individual picture books, which would allow parents to read and re-read them to their children and children to leaf through them and let illustrations remind them of the story told for months. But securing a publisher may take a long time, and I would like to make the identity-formation-supporting literature for the very young available immediately. So, please, watch for Cherryleaf Library for Children on YouTube: I’ll read the tales on video as soon as I figure out how to do so.
Why Cherryleaf? In honor of my mother, Victoria Kirshenblat (Kirschenblatt = Cherryleaf), who was an exceptionally good person, actively kind under all circumstances, daily diminishing suffering wherever she found it – among people and animals alike. She was a pediatrician by the grace of God, an extraordinary children’s doctor. For decades she had patients whose parents were her patients; by the end of her working life, she had patients whose grandparents were her patients. While in medical school, she thought of becoming a psychiatrist. So she was acutely aware of the realities of mental disease. She would certainly support this new undertaking of mine, and I prefer it to be associated with her name, rather than with mine: “Professor Greenfeld” would mean nothing to children and nothing but an imposition of academic authority to their parents.
I also intend to start reading books for the slightly older, 6-year-old+ children, beginning with “Nobody’s Boy” by Hector Malot. This is one of the tiny identity-formation-assisting corpus of literature for this age-group that I mentioned. It is available in English, but is quite unknown, and reading it aloud online, I believe, would attract more attention to it than simply recommending it. So please watch for the Cherryleaf Library podcast.
To discover Liah Greenfeld’s books is akin to Keats’ reaction on first looking into Chapman’s Homer:”like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.” This comes from someone who, though age 81, has studied political philosophy and nationalism for decades.