Books

Selfish Giant or Selfish Gene?

Richard Dawkins, the biologist and controversialist, has said at the Cheltenham Literature Festival this week that the reading of fairy tales by children encourages a lack of critical thinking.
Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are? Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?…I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.
He wants instead to train children to be good rationalists and future scientists and ward off any sense of the religious.

The fairy tales collected two hundred years ago in Germany have a powerful hold on our culture with their strong sense of the surrounding forest and its dangers. For Bruno Bettelheim* the tales allow children to examine secret fears and preoccupations, an early examination of the existential predicament, and are of irreplaceable importance. Dawkins makes the mistake of thinking that reading fairy tales fosters a misunderstanding of plausibility and thereby stunts a child. Can he identify a single adult who holds the view that frogs do turn into princes? It is a mistake to think that children’s minds should be forced to operate as an adult’s does.

Expecting literature to train young people to be rationalists and logical thinkers is to mistake what literature actually is. Literature (and art) for adults can be as fantastical as fairy tales: Norse mythology, Le Morte d’Artur, The Thousand and One Nights, Sir Gawain and the Green Night. And more recently Ionesco, Beckett, Bunuel, Dali, Lewis Carroll, Gunter Grass. There has always been a deep connection between storytelling and myth; imagination and the absurd. The enchantment of literature is for the curious and the intelligent, young and old. There is plenty of time in life for the rational – we get enough of that anyway.

Can I invite Professor Dawkins to re-read his Schiller: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life.”

*The Uses of Enchantment, 1976

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