The Abstract Fairy Tale

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grimm_fairy_tales_red_riding_hoodOnce, I thought that all of the children’s stories that I had read when I was young were past being written. I heard that the fairy tales and the nursery rhymes had been banned in the schools and that my favorite writers had been placed on lists that described them and their works as unsuitable for children. The reasons that were given were that some (or most) of the stories were too “violent” or perhaps they were too “risque” for the sensibilities of modern children. The tales certainly had their share of death and destruction, and they were rife with extremes of depraved villains and savage cruelties; I definitely wouldn’t challenge any statements to that effect. The fact is not that there are evils within the pages of these classic and well-respected tales, but rather that the stories are just that, stories.

I know that children today are inundated with games and movies that are bloody and vicious and that some of the fare that they are served seems to be bereft of any moral content, but if we don’t impart to children that there is a deep chasm between fact and fiction, we never establish a firm foundation within them for abstract thought. If we consider someone who takes every statement that is heard literally, at face value, we think of a Forrest Gump type of character, charming perhaps, humorous, or maybe even mildly entertaining. But most of all, we think of such a character as dumb. Simply stupid. All forms of higher intellectual work require forms of deep abstraction, a basic formula of “this equals that”. We would not have poetry, literature, music, computer science, psychology, mathematics or any number of advanced disciplines if we had not developed a great capacity for notation.

Our entire concept of language is one of symbol and assignment. By that, I mean that we, alone amongst the higher vertebrates, have the capacity of assigning meaning to symbol. We are the only known intelligence that can truly understand relationship. This means that if we cannot impart to our children the understanding that although “this may equal that” or even that “this may mean that”, it does not necessarily follow that “this is that”. If one has ever had any experience with computer programming, a chore that more and more people today have had experience with, one realizes rather quickly that, no matter how impressive a machine may be, they are always comparatively stupid. Computers may seem smart to some, but never to the programmer. If a programmer does feel that the machine is quite intelligent, it is simply because that particular programmer is not at a low enough level in terms of the programming paradigm. By that I mean that someone who programs in a higher level interpreted language will probably have more respect for the machine or the language in which they are working than a programmer who is working in say, assembly language for example. The reason this is so is because much of the work of the higher level programmer has already been done for him.


I digress slightly from my original point simply to make it in a more explicit way. The fact that I’m trying to get across is simply this: If I were to explain a mundane task to a person of low intelligence who had little or no prior experience with the aforementioned task, there would be a greater chance of me teaching them to perform it in a shorter amount of time than would be possible with a comparatively intelligent machine with the same comparative experience. I know that I mix metaphors when I attempt to describe the machine as “intelligent” or “experienced” and I don’t mean to delve into the semantics of A.I. Simply put, people are smart (even dumb ones), and machines are stupid (even smart ones). Programmers (sometimes!) are smart, not machines. This is because people can understand abstracts. It is easier for me to explain something to you because I do not have to explain it to you precisely or literally. You, not simply because you are human but also because of how you’ve been educated, can understand analogy, metaphor, symbolism and various other forms of relational expression. You are poetic. Your language is colorful, not literal. The fact that the previous sentence made any sense at all is proof of that.

I believe that this implies that to treat children as if all of the things that they see or read are to be taken literally destroys their sense of relationship in language forms. If children’s tales are to be only what can be real, we hamstring our children and their ability to create informal expression and to understand complex symbolic languages such as music notation, programming languages, foreign languages, ancient languages, scientific notation, maps, blueprints and so much more. I’m sure that you are intelligent enough to see where I’m going with this. They are just stories. They are not real. No more than a blueprint is a building or a score is a symphony. They are symbolic expressions of deeper things that relate to important ways that children view themselves and the world. Violence in a book is not violence. It’s not. It’s fiction, a fairy tale. If we don’t allow our children to learn that, then how will they develop the next generation of invention, art or technology?

Posted by Jon   @   4 February 2013 0 comments

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