Of Leprechauns, Warlocks & Sceptics

A number of months ago, in March to be precise, I visited my son Andrew’s preschool. The afternoon was filled with crafts, games, snacks and direct instruction time with the teacher. As a student of human nature, I enjoyed my time with the class because it gave me an opportunity to learn something about how young children learn; it would appear children tend to believe everything they’re told no matter how credulous.

For instance, my son Alec can be quite gullible, e.g. As a rule I try to avoid exploiting this tendency of his just for the sake of generating giggles; however, on one occasion I thought I could make an innocent use of his gullibility. Seven years ago (when he was six) I took Alec and his two brothers to Walking with the Dinosaurs. I knew they were interested in these now extinct reptiles. In fact, I read cosmology, science fiction and dinosaur related material to my children. Andrew absolutely loves black holes, Aaron adores superheroes, and Alec digs The Hobbit.

For weeks before the dinosaur show I told Alec the creatures we’d be seeing at the show were in fact real. He was astonished. He asked, “Weren’t they killed by an asteroid striking the earth 65 million years ago?” I told him this was in fact the case; however, he’d seen the movie Jurassic Park and I told him scientists had grown dinosaurs in a lab. I thought it an innocent little prank. I remembered what it was like to be a kid when everything was so BIG. I personally miss having that mindset where everything seems to be possible… I wanted to do something like that for my son.

At the start of the dinosaur show, a stage light pierced the black illuminating a lone velociraptor on the middle of the stage floor at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon. The creature looked new_rap.jpgsurprisingly real. My fascination ended once I saw the creature’s legs: raptor legs are structured in the reverse direction of human legs; the legs of the person in the costume combined with the raptor legs formed a diamond of appendages. Alec noticed the same geometric problem and looked at me quizzically. I shrugged and smiled. The gig was not yet up. Then the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex emerged. The creature was huge, absolutely terrifying in aspect. Instead of being frightened, Alec calmly leaned over to me and asked: dad what’s that board thing with the wheels on it at the feet of the T-Rex? In a futile attempt to continue the gag I responded quickly, “Dinosaurs used skateboards. Everyone knows that, Alec.”

He didn’t buy it and I was proud of him for it.

Preschools to me are not really places of learning. They have more in common with daycare, in that, it’s a place where parents can dump their children off for a guilt-free afternoon’s reprieve. Based on my experience I can honestly say there’s no formal curriculum guiding the teacher’s actions. This actually is a good thing in my opinion. Depending on the teacher a curriculum can act less as a guide and more of a means to quash inquiry and critical thinking. In the end, the main benefit of sending your child to preschool is obviously socialization: children learn how to play, share and communicate with other children.

They also learn how to listen.

I personally did not attend preschool and I regret it. On some non-descript September day in 1977 my mom dropped me off at Kindergarten. The room was full of strange faces that over the course of eight years eventually became friendly ones; nonetheless, on the first day these faces were alien to me; it was made worse by virtue of the fact basically everyone except me had attended preschool. Therefore, everyone knew everyone else and I was the odd one out. I remember mom trying to quietly leave the classroom without my noticing. I was having none of that I’ll tell you. I chased her down in the hall, clamped my arms tightly about her legs, and stood as heavy as I could on her feet. I didn’t know anybody. How could she leave me? As I was only six at the time the Kindergarten teacher (whose name I have blocked out for good reason) was able to distract me just long enough for my mom to make good her escape. I don’t think I was intellectually at a deficit as a result of not attending preschool; but, socially, I began my academic career at a disadvantage.

As of 2009, all three of my sons have “graduated” from preschool. For the most part I’m happy with the work they were given, the field trips they’ve taken, and crafts they’ve completed. Seriously how can you get nap time, wrong? Preschool isn’t exactly rocket science. I fondly recall Andrew (my youngest) putting together ingredients in a jar for nut brownies. He gave the chocolate concoction to me. I would of course die if I ate these lovingly prepared brownies (but it’s the thought that counts, nes pas?). The second oldest (the inquisitive Alec) scrawled a barely legible picture in crayon of the family sledding during Christmas; and Aaron, the eldest, put together a nice Valentine’s Day presentation together declaring his undying love for mom (neglecting me altogether).

But during the most recent visit in March of this year I was pretty disappointed in the preschool product. I’m not one of those parents who think their child needs to do well in preschool so they can eventually enter an Ivy League university like Yale or something; nevertheless, I do have an idea of what does or does not constitute genuine education. Moreover, I spent several thousand dollars on a piece of paper from Sask Learning saying I’m a teacher. Therefore, I felt entitled to vet and analyse the preschool teacher’s performance.

My visit took place just a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. I sat down behind children sitting in a tidy row—shoulder to shoulder—in front of the teacher. The teacher began the class pointing at the calendar acknowledging a special holiday was fast approaching. Instead of explaining the actual significance of the holiday to the children (which they were perfectly capable of understanding if the right approach were used) she read to the students a note from a surly leprechaun. I forget the actual name she used for the elf. I’ll give him a name based on one of the many generalizations used to describe Irish people—let’s call him Punchy.

As the teacher read Punchy’s letter aloud I got the impression this wasn’t the first time he’d written the children; it was all quite credulous. The teacher (who the children trusted) said something about how Punchy kept sneaking into the preschool classroom to leave notes. He sounded more like a stalker or a burglar than a charming imp. I think Punchy made references to pots of gold and rainbows and a host of other equally fatuous notions. The children were absolutely spellbound. One of the little boys wanted the teacher to pass on a special message to Punchy while another announced how much she liked Punchy and wanted to meet him.

I watched my son Andrew from a distance to see his reaction to the letter. What was going on his mind? Did he actually believe a partially bearded miniature gold hoarding burglar was in fact breaking and entering their learning space once a week leaving them notes? Andrew had no reason not to think this was happening. The teacher assured the class the leprechaun was quite real. And here’s my point: as a teacher you cannot abuse trust; you have an obligation to provide young people with the most accurate information available so that, given the balance of probabilities, the student can make use of this information to make up their own mind up about life, etc. This sounds like something only appropriate for older students. I disagree: you can do this for young children, as well. Obviously, you have to bring it down to the appropriate level but it can be done. I do it for my own kids. To not do it, in my mind, constitutes the worst type of intellectual dishonesty.

A person could argue what’s the harm with innocently teaching children that leprechauns exist? I take issue with it because you are abusing trust. The reason it is considered quaint to teach about Easter Bunnies, leprechauns or Santa Claus, by most people is they think teaching these things this is perfectly harmless. On the contrary, when you teach this to children you’re teaching them not to think. You’re teaching them to equate imagination with fact and to blindly accept what they’ve been taught by others; and as these children grow in to adults the tendency to believe whatever they are told by authority becomes ingrained. If anything, we should be instilling a questioning attitude in children.

For instance, in 1996 fourteen year old Sandy Charles of Laronge, Saskatchewan, killed a seven year old boy. The older boy was inspired by a movie called Warlock (a video he watched at least ten times). In the film, a warlock apparently boils the fat of a victim. The warlock then quaffs the potion and it gives him the ability to fly. This inspired Sandy to do the same thing to his young victim. You can read about this at the following URL: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-61157029.html. If someone could’ve taught Sandy the difference between fact and fiction, or better yet how to think about reality maybe, just maybe, this tragedy could have been averted. There’s a distinct possibility Sandy was in fact a disturbed individual; yet, irrespective of his alleged mental illness, he should not have been watching this movie (especially unattended without someone there to vet the content of the film explaining to him that drinking liquefied human fat will not enable you to fly any more than wearing an Acme Batman suit would).

Then there’s the Branch Davidians led by David Koresh. He was the leader of a relatively tiny but radical Christian fundamentalist sect based in Texas in the 1990s. He taught his membership that he was the second coming of Jesus. Moreover, he claimed that the singer Madonna was put on earth for him exclusively. Apparently no one communicated this vital fact to Madonna as I would not use the word “exclusive” to describe her sex life. I digress. Further to that, he claimed sole sexual rights to all the females in the cult. Okay. At what point does a person ask the question: is this guy really Jesus? Seriously. I don’t know about you but Koresh’s actions do not seem to be in agreement with the character of Jesus I encountered in the New Testament. Besides Koresh had to wear glasses….? I mean, come on, if you can raise someone from the dead can’t you at least heal your own eyesight? People that do not think about what they think about are a danger to others and themselves. You can read about this bozo here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Koresh

These aren’t the only examples of the terrible cost of mindlessness. There are men in Africa today infected with AIDs who think if they have sex with a virgin or a newborn infant their disease will go away. So they rape virgins and babies in an attempt to get rid of the disease. How messed up is that? I wish I was making this up. Have a read: http://www.scienceinafrica.co.za/2002/april/virgin.htm

So what do leprechauns have to do with a young boy from Laronge, a near sighted messianic figure in Waco, Texas, and scientifically illiterate men from South Africa? They are connected by a general inability or unwillingness to ask questions like: “How do I know what I know?” “Why do I think this is true?” “Is there any actual proof for my belief?”

Why can’t a preschool teacher teach the true significance of St. Patrick’s Day? Truth is often more interesting than fiction and Patrick had some pretty interesting run-ins with druids. Moreover, why can’t you ditch the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and teach the actual meaning of these holidays? Bunnies and red suited fat men that travel the entire expanse of the earth in the course of a single night on a flying sleigh at the speed of light just doesn’t cut it for me anymore; and it doesn’t for my kids. I have a responsibility as a father to empower my kids to be thoughtful in a thoughtless and at times dangerous world. I refuse to fail in this regard.

On the way home from preschool on that fateful March day when Punchy’s letter was read, I asked my son Andrew if he believed leprechauns existed. He didn’t respond. To be honest I’m not sure if he understood the significance of the question—children think a lot differently than adults (or at least most adults). Now I could have just told him leprechauns don’t exist and left it at that. However, I’d be doing exactly what his teacher had done; that is, I’d be arguing from authority, e.g. He trusts dad. Dad knows more than me. Dad says Punchy doesn’t exist. Therefore, Punchy doesn’t exist. I don’t believe in the wisdom of reverse indoctrination. If you’re going to teach, do it properly. Give the person (no matter their age) an opportunity to answer or ask the right questions; and if they learn how to answer certain questions properly then they’ll learn how to frame their own questions when they get older.

So I asked Andrew a second question: have you ever seen Punchy? He responded in the negative. I asked him a third question: do you think it’s possible your teacher wrote those letters just for fun? He responded in the positive. I left it at that. I did not tell him leprechauns do not exist. Instead, I modelled the methods used by any reasonable and/or sceptical person to get at the truth.

The next week my wife took Andrew to preschool. According to her, as soon as Andrew entered the building he walked straight up to his teacher and said, “Leprechauns don’t exist” and then he walked off to the toy box. I wish I could’ve seen the teacher’s reaction.