Thursday, September 19, 2013

On Didacticism

Didacticism is the idea of putting clear and obvious morals, lessons, and other instructional qualities in literature and art in order to impart goodness in your audience.

Aesop's Fables are an easy example of didactic stories. For example, the lion learned that the mouse could be helpful and important despite being small and weak. The lesson is really the whole reason for the existence of a fable.

Here's a fun fact about kids: They're smarter and more insightful than most people give them credit for. When you try to shove a lesson down their throats, most of them will resist because that isn't "edutainment" or whatever they call it now... it's just annoying.

Some authors understand this, and accept it.

Neil Gaiman says on his website that he doesn't worry about presenting a too-scary setting or story to kids.

Louis Sachar is celebrated for not talking down to his young audience.

Jeff Kinney (of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame) is another author recognized for treating his audience of children like thinking people.

And more to my point (and this week's theme), Dr. Seuss agreed with the lot of them. He said that "kids can see a moral coming from a mile off," but that didn't stop him from including lessons (he claimed "there's an inherent moral in any story") although he was self-proclaimed as being "subversive as hell."

And somehow, I feel that Seuss's lessons were better than the ones you usually get in kids' books. Most didactic children's books, TV shows, and movies teach kids to do what their parents say, eat healthy, clean their room, etc. Seuss based many of his books on political ideas he held:

The Butter Battle Book is about the arms race.
The Lorax is about environmentalism (and to be fair, the movie is far and away more didactic than the book).
How the Grinch Stole Christmas criticizes the consumerism surrounding what is supposed to be a religious holiday.
Horton Hears a Who! is about anti-isolationism and promoting better relationships between the countries of the world.

You've probably read Horton Hears a Who! and/or seen Seussical! The Musical so you probably think that the phrase "A person's a person, no matter how small" is pretty inspiring. Hooray for the little guy! Well, that's how Seuss meant it, anyway. He sued to stop anti-abortion groups from using the phrase back in the 1980s. Now that he's dead, they've started it up again, which Seuss's widow fights when she can.

1 comment:

  1. Also check out Heinrich Hoffman's Der Struwwelpeter, which offered children doing bad things and having worse things happening to them.

    And the takes-all-comers of didacticism has to be Hilaire Belloc, who wrote hyperbolic poems of children committing minor infractions (popped balloon, being late to church) and suffering horrible, often fatal, consequences. The punishment:crime ratio was so overdone that one has the impression he was making fun of everybody else's didacticism…but when one reads his political speeches and his Catholic Apologia, one wonders if he really meant it, after all…