Wednesday, December 16, 2009

What is Inappropriate for Children?

Of all the stories I read to my kids when they were pre-schoolers, Thomas the Tank Engine stories were probably my least favorite. I have been saying for years that they promoted subservience to authority figures, right or wrong. The typical story had one of the engines getting punished for challenging the better judgment of the bosses, or for agitating for better working conditions for an individual or the group. The moral of the story was generally to do what you're told, don't complain, and don't make trouble. It was not the message that someone with a rebellious streak like me wanted to encourage in my children. But my kids liked these stories, and we had this giant 400 page book containing all of them, so I dutifully read them all, just biding my time until I could get to something I enjoyed more, especially the wildly imaginative and far better written books of Roald Dahl.

Now Shauna Wilton, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, has done a study of the tv versions of a number of Thomas the Tank Engine stories, concluding that they promote a conservative ideology and a sometimes sexist viewpoint. I have already written her a fan letter. The reactions to this story which has been reported in a number of outlets, reveal some of the fault lines of the culture wars in our society. Many simply cannot see what the professor is talking about. To them, the fact that a political science professor would waste her time criticizing harmless children's stories merely demonstrates the decadence of liberal academia. Others of a culturally conservative bent might concede her point but still argue that the values taught by such stories are exactly the ones we should want to teach our children. And then there are a few people like me who always found Thomas the Tank Engine absolutely appalling.

Of course, nowadays with liberals in power, and conservatives forced to march in the street to try to get their message across, perhaps conservatives might be less supportive of conformist messages, and more encouraging of those who want to raise hell with the establishment. Perhaps we should all try to agree that it might be a good idea to teach our children to question authority at least once in a while, and not necessarily always strive to be obedient little engines.

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