Two of the most dangerous words in any language are “should” and “ought.” Generally, they are used to create divisions between those who follow the rules and those who don’t. Society needs rules, of course, but few of them need the heft of Biblical standards. Most transgressions, I’ve discovered, are best digested with a little humor.
Megan Cox Gordon, a children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal recently gave a speech at Hillsdale College that was rife with “shoulds” and “oughts.” She complained that what passed for children and young adult literature today was too full of violence and dark themes. According to her, books should teach “what culture is, how we are expected to behave… Books don’t just cater to taste. They form tastes.” http://www2.hillsdale.edu/news/imprimis/archive/issue.asp?year=2013&month=07
Several repressive societies would agree with Gordon. They, too, see books as tools for promoting conformity and spreading propaganda. But they and the book critic forget free artists would never accept their “shoulds” and “oughts.” They’d prefer to open our eyes, not close them.
Nonetheless, Gordon requires that publications for the young have “transcendent” themes like those found in The Chronicles of Narnia or The Wind in the Willows. Such stories, she reminds us, can make “aesthetic and moral claims.”
If I had to guess, I’d say Gordon has led a sheltered life. A child raised in dissolute poverty or in a violent neighborhood would be hard pressed to relate to her demand for transcendent themes. I count myself among them. Coming from a broken home and living in the shabbiest parts of Los Angeles, I longed, not for castles and talking lions, but for a world I could recognize. I longed for stories that helped me understand my fears and why I was made to feel inferior. Not even my beloved Winnie the Pooh could do that. I needed those darker tales Gordon complains about to feel I was neither bad nor alone.
“Should” and “ought” are words that attempt to squeeze the infinite variety of human experiences into a narrow pattern that promotes conformity. Fortunately art, truly transcendent art, could never be so limited.
(Originally posted 1/2/14)
(Courtesy of knauer.info)