Life Under Compulsion

Anthony Esolen. Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child. Delaware: ISI Books, 2015. 224 pages. $27.95

Ever since Edison recorded sound, each new generation of parents has voiced the same complaint: why do my kids listen to that junk! I sympathize strongly with such parents, who feel powerless to shield their children from music that, rather than draw them closer to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, fills them with anti-Christian, anti-social, often anti-humanistic emotions of rage or lust or ingratitude or cynicism or self-loathing.

Though my sympathy remains, I have taken lately to challenging such parents with a simple, but probing question: when your children were growing up, did you ever once turn on the stereo and listen to good music together? Usually, the answer is no. We want our kids to listen to good music, but we rarely, if ever, model good listening. When do they ever see us listening to and enjoying classical or popular music that uplifts the soul rather than degrades it and that strives, if not for joy and truth, at least for wit and charm? 

If we ever do listen to music, it's invariably what happens to be on the radio at the moment--thus instilling in our progeny the belief that we should allow society to choose our music for us. And that is a bad thing. Even in those golden days when American popular songs were written by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter, a perusal of the billboard charts will often reveal that the most popular songs were the inferior ones: not harmful in the way that popular music has increasingly become since the 1960s, but certainly not in the category of Gershwin, Berlin, and Porter.

In raising our children, we must be proactive; if we are not, then society will raise them, and we'll find ourselves on the defensive, frantically trying to undo the damage. And that means not only screening what television shows they watch but keeping them away from the commercials that often do more damage than the show itself. Absent concerted effort on the part of parents, children will grow up to be what every force in our modern society desires them to be: consumers with an endless itch for novelty.


Thankfully, Anthony Esolen, Professor of English at Providence College, senior editor of Touchstone, and translator of The Divine Comedy, has recently published a second book dedicated to training parents how to guard against this itch. In Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, his follow up to Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2013), Esolen analyzes--nay, vivisects--modern society to show that we in "democratic" America live in the shadow of twentieth-century totalitarianism. 

We think that we are free because we are allowed to do anything we want, but "that freedom is without substance. . . . 'Nobody can tell me what to do,' says the adolescent, except that everyone is ceaselessly at his ear, urging him, enticing him, rasping him, needling him, goading him, telling him that unless he does something, anything, he will be no one" (17-18). This is what Esolen so aptly names a "life under compulsion," one in which our children are compelled to act and think and believe (or not believe) in a certain way by forces that assault them from without and from within.

In his ten chapters, all of which are effectively fleshed out through copious references to the great literature of the past and present, Esolen helps us to identify those external and internal forces, to assess their insidious strategies, and, hopefully, to commit ourselves to the hard work of protecting our children from them. He begins exactly where he needs to begin: with the compulsory education that is foisted upon our young in public schools. 


Rather than assault us with statistics, Esolen provides us throughout his book with counter visions of what childhood should be, could be, and has been when it is lived out within a loving family. He takes us, nostalgically, to a one-room schoolhouse and encourages us to look at it, really look at it: "The school looks in part like a home, or a small town hall, or a chapel. Appropriately so, since it is a public extension of the home, in harmony with the virtues encouraged by the church" (p.30). 

In this safe haven, children are not artificially segregated by age, nor are the teachers members of a guild that seems hell-bent on subverting the beliefs of the parents. Yes, it is a public school, but, far from an arm of some distant federal government, it "belongs to the people who live there. It is their free and liberty-making creation" (p.30). Better yet, in those blissful days before the school bus, the school was a local one, servicing children who all lived in the same neighborhood and whose parents knew each other.

Growing up in the northeast, I had come to share, unconsciously, the Yankee-Protestant prejudice against provincialism. Reading Esolen's incisive articles in Touchstone over the last decade taught me that the church suffered greatly when it ceased to be a provincial institution and became something that suburbanites with cars chose because it satisfied their personal taste. Reading Life Under Compulsion has convinced me that the loss of provincialism in education has been equally disastrous. 
The school no longer works in tandem with the values of family, church, and synagogue. Instead, it seeks to socialize those put under its care. In the place of such traditional virtues as courage, prudence, and chastity, it teaches students "how to sit still, how to obey bells, how to make insipid clichés pass for thought, how to be 'subversive' in trivial and uniform ways, how to think 'outside the box' of tradition and wisdom and into the stainless steel cage of the politically 'correct'" (p.35).


Having exposed the horrors of modern public education, Esolen goes on to critique one of its chief architects: John Dewey. An atheist disciple of Freud and Rousseau, Dewey helped drive education away, not only from family and church, but from the life of the imagination. All that mattered for Dewey was data and skills and scientific methods of pedagogy. Out of Dewey's mania for efficiency, for reducing students to machines, sprang at least two banes of modern education. First, "the folding of history and geography into social studies, increasingly focused upon what was in the newspaper--the ephemeral" (p.56). Second, the recent triumph of the Common Core program which cares nothing about what students read, "only how complex the text is, judged according to various quantitative algorithms and a few subjective checklists that do not touch upon goodness, beauty, or truth" (p.57).

Such schools do not train their students to be ladies and gentlemen, as Cardinal Newman believed a true liberal arts education should do. To the contrary, they train them for a life of drudgery in a working world that encourages licentious living but that squelches true wonder, joy, contemplation, and leisure. Anything that does not serve our work or our lusts--both of which are defined in utilitarian terms--is to be avoided.

While contemplating an old Community Song Book from Canada, Esolen arrives at a sobering truth about our enslavement to a life of compulsion. "We don't have community song, because we have no community, and we have no song. We don't actually listen to music, although we believe we do. . . . We play it as noise to accompany something else we are doing, quite often something that also bears the character of a compulsion--work at a dull job, 'hooking up' with someone whose name we haven't caught, jogging to lose those last five pounds . . ." (p.121).

The upshot of this schizophrenic life of compulsion which frees us to do anything but actually be free is to produce a generation of people who, rather than "tolerate much, forgive all, and condone nothing . . . condone much, tolerate little, and forgive nothing" (129-130). Jesus accused the Pharisees of straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel. Just so, our public schools, while encouraging, if not mandating, the widespread use of psychotropic drugs in their elementary and middle school charges, summarily expel students who dare to bring Tylenol to school without the proper documentation.


Although Life Under Compulsion does tend to lose steam as it moves along, and although Esolen often spends too much time and space quoting and analyzing literary passages, he continually rescues his narrative thrust through a razor-sharp observation that makes the reader pause in wonder. Such a moment occurs in chapter eight, when Esolen notes a change that has come over the neighborhood where he grew up.

In the days of his youth, Esolen, together with troops of wide-eyed boys, would play in the woods and gullies that stretched out behind his home. Today, that area is filled with "one big expensive house after another, but never any children. I believe that the size of a house built in the past thirty years is in inverse proportion to the number of people who live in it" (p.174). In the modern one- or two-child mansion, what Esolen dubs a "semi-orphanage" (p.175), every member has his own bedroom, his own bathroom, and his own personal source of entertainment. Even within our homes, we are isolated.

Judas, Esolen reminds us, believed that he was putting himself "on the right side of Jewish history" (p.185). We risk doing the same when we give in to the orthodoxies of our day, when we rush to socialize our children without taking note of what they are being socialized into. Though Esolen does not call on all parents to remove their children from the public school system, he does call on us to protect the innocence and free play of our children and to prevent our families from slipping into a commercialized, pre-packaged world that compels us to itch for the very things that will rob us of life, hope, and joy. 

Louis Markos (, Professor in English & Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his books include On the Shoulders of Hobbits, Restoring Beauty: The Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the Writings of C. S. Lewis, Literature: A Student's Guide, C. S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education, and From A to Z to Narnia with C. S. Lewis