3.03.2010

Children's Literature and Indoctrination


Everything’s Indoctrination?

Ben Clanton

"You're thinking about something my dear, and that makes you forget to talk. I can't tell you just now what the moral of that is, but I shall remember it in a bit. Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it."

--Lewis Carroll (the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland)

The assertion that “all children’s literature is indoctrination, even when it appears not to be” can be absolutely devastating for the reader who simply loves to be entertained and find pleasure in the depths of a great story (Stahl, Hanlon and Keyser 3). Is it not possible, such a reader (like Alice or me) may question, to have a book free of ideology and instruction? According to Peter Hollindale, his contemporaries, and many other scholars, ideology may be found in all works, even though it may be hard to see due to its sometimes close proximity to one’s own values. A juxtaposition of such works as Isaac Watts’ moralistic poems, Maria Edgeworth’s stories about the character Rosamond, and Mark Twain’s (Samuel Langhorne Clemens’s) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer demonstrates a spectrum of the visibility of indoctrination in children’s literature. In the end, it may be argued that, at least partially, all these works confirm the argument that ideology is everywhere and comes in the form of indoctrination in children’s literature. However, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland provides an especially challenging case, through the paradoxical situation of indoctrinating the audience in the resistance of indoctrination. Yet, as with all the works, there may be found an ethos, which reveals a more pleasurable perspective than that the indoctrination lens.

Isaac Watts’ poems, such as “Against Idleness and Mischief” and “The Sluggard” fall into what Hollindale would likely call explicit dominant ideology. That Watts’ poems purposely were written to teach children particular beliefs, doctrine, and ideology systematically with the goal of discouraging independent thought proves difficult to dispute. Popular Western cultural beliefs, of the time, about the importance of hard work and avoiding idleness are transparent, no matter how cleverly presented, in “Against Idleness and Mischief” and “The Sluggard.” In these, the narrator is a child who praises the work ethic of the bee and finds the “Godless” sluggard intolerable.[1] Both poems end on the appraisal of what one ought to do. Yet, there may be one point in “Against Idleness and Mischief” that does not fit with the dominant culture’s beliefs of the time. The first line of the fourth stanza reads: “In books, or work, or healthful play” (Watts 32). There appears in this line the “implied affirmation of the validity of play as a legitimate childhood activity, although, of course, it is joined with study and work” (Stahl, Hanlon and Keyser 32). This praise of play deserves to be highlighted for play has historically often been demeaned and considered inferior to such “separate” areas as work.[2] Of course, while perhaps not part of the dominant culture, this emphasis on play certainly is still an example of an outright attempt to indoctrinate. The poems are heavy-handed, especially for a modern audience.

Like Watts’ poems, Edgeworth’s “The Birthday Present” has instructional purposes. Yet, while the moralistic dimension is present, it may be argued that “indoctrination” is too strong a word to apply as a descriptor of Edgeworth’s words. Are the stories didactic? Certainly! They promote a value of utility and acting in a way that is considered “good and reasonable.” Do they indoctrinate? To answer this question, let’s consider Edgeworth’s positioning as a Rational Moralist who gave a degree of credit to the young mind’s ability to think and form opinions. For instance, in “The Birthday Present” it ends with Rosamond’s father telling her: “‘you must decide that for yourself, Rosamond’” (Edgeworth 44). Not only does Rosamond have to decide for herself what it is that she cherishes but so does the reader or listener. Edgeworth purposely leaves the answer of what Rosamond had valued vague so as to engage the audience. Such an engagement is by no means a discouragement of thought as might be believed to be involved with indoctrination. But why have these conundrums be principally Rosamond’s to bear instead of her calm sister Laura? Moreover, why make Rosamond the main protagonist when Laura embodies so many of the values Edgeworth espouses? To answer this question let us consider another aspect of the ethos of the Rosamond stories. The reason that many enjoy the stories is that Rosamond’s character is spirited and fun. This dynamic to her character is shown when in “The Purple Jar” she goes on humorously long-winded debates with herself about the value of this object, the jar, which she knows little about. Edgeworth revels in Rosamond’s embodiment of a particular nostalgia for childhood. Yes, Edgeworth’s works may have some dry didactic aspects, but the overall character of the stories is something more progressive. Although, none the less a case of indoctrination. Yet, what of a work that is less explicit? What of one that does not appear to indoctrinate at all?

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer exemplifies what Hollindale would likely argue is implicit ideology (values that the author is unaware of conveying), and fits with C.S. Lewis’s definition of what it takes for a story to have a good moral. That definition being that “the only moral that is of any value is that which arises inevitably from the whole cast of the author’s mind” (Lewis 11). As Twain’s work is highly autobiographical it would make sense that the values he accumulated in his life may be found in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Yet, if so, they are not readily visible as the frequently subversive characters of Tom and Huck provide great fun and enjoyment for the audience. Where are the supposed lessons? This may then be the best, or at least most effective type of indoctrination, as the values are not transparent and so one might not consciously grapple with and thus potentially reject them. Furthermore, I would contend that the critical reader, both child and adult, will find the morals and discover that the values in the story are more thought provoking than sources of indoctrination. Tom’s sudden altruistic nobility to keep Becky Thatcher from being flogged by taking the blame for touching and ripping the teacher’s book provides an example (Twain 585). No matter how subversive and mischievous Tom may be, Twain emphasizes through this case that Tom has a natural reaction to “do what is right.” The ideology being, in part, that it is important to help someone in need. The action seems so contrary to Tom’s rough and tumble words that it is unlikely to go unnoticed by the audience.

However, this more conventional moral does not constitute the true ethos of the book as it is the fun characteristics of Tom and Huck that embody the work. My most vivid memories of the book have always been about the clever deceits, such as Tom tricking other boys to white wash his Aunt’s fence or Tom reveling in going to his own funeral. These moments epitomize the fundamental and distinctive nature of the work. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is subversive and nostalgic even more than the case of Edgeworth’s Rosamond. While we, contemporary American Society, do not commonly think of encouraging humor as a case of indoctrination, it may be argued that this is the main moral Twain presents . . . a moral that comes from his entire mind.

What of a book that seems nigh impossible to find morals within? Let’s consider the stories of Alice. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Duchess argues that everything must have a moral (not dissimilar to arguments heard from those whose statement forms the central concern of this essay), but Carroll’s book challenges such an assertion. In fact, Carroll seems to relish parodying and making fun of literature with morals. He does such when he has Alice come across a bottle with a label saying “Drink me”:

It was all very well to say 'Drink Me,' but the wise little Alice was not going to do that in a hurry. 'No, I'll look first,' she said, 'and see whether it's marked "poison" or not': for she had read several nice little stories about children who had got burnt, and eaten up by wild beasts, and other unpleasant things, all because they would not remember the simple rules their friends had taught them: such as, that a red-hot poker will burn you if you hold it too long; and that, if you cut your finger very deeply with a knife, it usually bleeds; and she had never forgotten that, if you drink much from a bottle marked 'poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later (Carroll 64).

This little episode quite clearly was meant to be ironic: moralistic stories that have all their values laid out plainly fail to encourage independent thought. Alice is willing to drink the bottle’s contents simply because of the tales she has been told that fail to be truly realistic. There are ample like situations throughout the book, but perhaps most famous of all are Carroll’s parodies of Watts’ poems such as with “How doth the little crocodile” and “Tis the voice of the Lobster.” These are obvious derisions of Victorian moralistic children’s literature. Combine these parodies with the further myriad portrayals of adult authority figures as absurd (i.e. the Duchess) and an agenda of Carrol’s may be seen.

It is arguable that the main moral of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is to think critically and independently. This then directly opposes an elemental part of the definition of “indoctrination.” Is not an aspect of indoctrination the limiting of independent thought? So, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland indoctrinates the audience with the ideology that one must resist indoctrination. Such an argument quickly becomes convoluted, which this hints at the complexity of ideology and the need to consider the ethos of a book.

By comparing selected works of Watts, Edgeworth, Twain, and Carroll, I have demonstrated a spectrum of the visibility of ideology in children’s litearture, but, more important than this, have emphasized the need to consider the ethos of a work when analyzing instance of indoctrination. The term “indoctrination” may come off as sounding malicious or underhanded to some, but I do not believe that Hollindale intended for such an interpretation. He too referred to the ethos, which does not require the sacrifice of pleasurable reading to critically engage the work. The presence of ideology does not mean that the book cannot be of entertainment value. Watts’ poems, the stories of Rosamond, Tom’s adventures and Alice’s all have their own particular appeals. The audience may delight and think. Perhaps this may be an indicator of “good” literature, or, at least, in contemporary American society?

Works Cited

Montgomery, Heather. An Introduction to Childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children's Lives. 1st ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwel, 2009. Print.

Stahl, J.D., Tina L. Hanlon, and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. "To Teach or Entertain?." Crosscurrents of Children's Literature: An Anthology of Texts and Criticism. Ed. Stahl, J.D., Tina L. Hanlon, and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.


[1] Watts’ choice to make the narrator a child was no accident. By giving the child the voice, the poem works to not talk down to the child. This proves to be one of the more progressive aspects of the poems.

[2] The reason that I put the word “separate” in quotation marks is that there has recently been criticism in such fields as Anthropology of the frequent dichotomization of work and play. Studies “have shown that the links between play, socialization, and work are extremely blurred and the categories of work and play do not always correspond to local understandings” (Montgomery 149). No doubt, the dimension of socialization has much to do with what Hollindale and others call indoctrination. This parallel between anthropological perspectives on childhood and scholarship in children’s literature may be an area for further study in the future.