Charles Dickens wrote in 1853 “In a utilitarian age, of all other times, it is a matter of grave importance that fairy tales should be respected.” When I read this it occurred to me how much broader this issue is than fairy tales only. It certainly applies to the whole realm of fantasy, but even beyond, to the ideal of liberal arts. I’ll explain, but first, a few words on Dickens’s agenda. The piece in which the statement appears, called Frauds on the Fairies, was his answer to his [former] friend and illustrator George Cruikshank, who had dared to rewrite some fairy tales to preach his favored cause against the evils of alcohol. Dickens praises fairy tales for their morality, simplicity, and innocence. He calls them “nurseries of fancy,” with which I agree, but also goes on with a lot of Victorian sentimentalism of which I think the fairy tales must be found Not Guilty. Moreover, he argues that the fairy tales must be “preserved in their… purity,” which is nonsense, as the fairy tales had never been static before and will continue to be retold and modified as long as they live. It’s my opinion that anyone who wants to rewrite fairy tales is entitled to do so, and if they stink, they will simply fall by the wayside. However, you can read the entire essay here, and you may be amused by Dickens’s satirical rewriting of Cinderella, which mocks all manner of absurd moral notions from health fads to women’s suffrage.
But to go back to that opening claim, I think Dickens was getting at something bigger than his irritation with Cruikshank. In a utilitarian age, it’s a great temptation to believe that fantasy, imagination, literature, the visual and performing arts, are all useless. Even in my generally enlightened town people write letters to the editor arguing that art and music are a waste of money in our schools. In Dickens’s own time it was considered utilitarian to put young children to work in those jobs too cramped, dangerous, delicate, or tedious for adults. We see now that taking children out of school to perform jobs that are likely to kill or maim them is hardly good for society in the long run, but we still seem to have difficulty seeing that squelching imagination, critical thinking, and broad-mindedness is also bad for society.
And that brings me to the value of a liberal arts education, and why it’s important that in this utilitarian age we don’t make the mistake of thinking too narrowly about what’s “useful.” I am very pleased to be featured in this month’s newsletter of The Phi Beta Kappa Society, where I explain the importance of the liberal arts and sciences thus: The liberal arts and sciences encourage a love of continued learning and a broad range of academic interests, as well as the habits of mind that allow us to take notice of interesting facts, follow up a thought to find out more, analyze, sift, critique, and be creative. Creativity requires cross-pollination. It involves pulling threads from many different areas to connect ideas that haven’t been connected before, to create new worlds that reflect our own back to us in new, illuminating ways. Not one of my three jobs [artist, juvenile fantasy writer, stay-at-home-mother] is the kind you might expect to “require” a college degree, and yet my education is a vital part of how (on my best days!) I do my work in all three of those areas: with curiosity, critical thinking, and creativity. And I believe that all of those jobs, done in that spirit, can help make the world a better place. Please go read the whole interview here.
[Pictures: The Pumpkin… to take Cinderella to the Ball…, copper engraving by George Cruikshank, 1854 (Image from Antiqua Print Gallery);
The Open Book, rubber block print by AEGN, 2013.]