Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Poverty of Imagination?

An article in Revue this month caught my eye, largely because its author Ana Flinder had reached precisely the opposite conclusion to my own regarding the relative "imaginative poverty" of Guatemalan and 'Western' children. Neither one of us is necessarily right or wrong, because it's clear we have different samples in mind. (And a rather different set of non-native prejudices.)

Flinder for example has had to resort to a number of generalisations in order to make her point, generalisations that seem to come a bit too naturally to many 'western' visitors here. For instance, from 'Guatemalan' she generally infers poor people and from 'North American' she generally infers people of affluence (and from other remarks made in the piece, urbanites or suburbanites in the main as well.)

This association comes almost reflexively to a certain kind of observer who back home tends to feel somewhat uncomfortable in his or her middlingly well-off, middle-class skin.

Now it's certainly true that relative to population size, a greater proportion of US parents have both the income and the inclination to buy games consoles for their children. And comparing the two societies there is a marked variation in the pervasiveness of consumer culture, but I have found over the years that the consequences of this in terms of imagination and overall whiney-ness are not as clearcut as Flinder suggests.

The flip-side of this tendency to idealise a lack in others (in largely material terms) is the unwillingness to even notice those parts of Guatemalan society where capitalism's hold is stronger. It's Macondo they came here for after all, not McOndo. Guatemalan individuals whose material — and even more tellingly, cultural — level are superior to the would-be commentator's are practically a taboo subject...unless their activities can in some sense be classified as 'social'.

Flinder also notes that the "dissatisfied, whining insistence" of North American children — and she presumes, Canadian and European ones — "certainly isn't a Guatemalan thing. Not in the least. Gracias a Dios!" (She's obviously not come across the local phenomenon known as the berrinche! )

I'm sure that many Guatemalan kids across the socio-demographics of the land are outdoors making up their own games in extended groups of friends and relatives in the country's famously 'safe' streets and markets. But I also know that a fair number spend their evenings glued to Mexican telenovelas targeted at adults.

Hardly any will have fed their growing minds with Dickens let alone Harry Potter, Asterix or Doctor Who, and frankly it does bother me that kids down here appear to lack easy access to an extensive selection of 'imaginative' products of their own, such as ones one finds on TV or on the children's bookshelves back in the UK.

One consequence it seems to me is that many children here manifest themselves as ill-formed adults, often driven by fairly primal instincts that they have yet to bring under mature control. Even comparatively disadvantaged kids in the UK seem generally better able to exploit the culture around them to define themselves as young individuals and to develop their own unique set of tastes and attitudes.

Children's literature, TV etc. is of course marketed at minors and therefore provides opportuities for more of the kind of inverted snobbery that I've been addressing here. Yet however inventive one is in isolation, there's usually no substitute for exposure to other worlds, both real and imagined. And, as I noted above, this is a problem that whilst exacerbated by material circumstances, isn't entirely coincident with them: so even where middle-class affluence exists here, the cultural level of Guatemalan children tends to fall well below that of their European peers.

This problem must surely feed into the challenge of educational under-performance that Guatemala and other Latin American countries face compared to their 'competitors' in the rest of the developing world; Asia in particular. The average Latin American adult has just 5.8 years of schooling compared to 10.5 for South Koreans and 7.9 for Malaysians. Even the richest 10% of Latin American society average around 11 years only, still below that of major developed nations in their entirety. And specifically here in Guatemala there are fewer girls than boys in the education system.

I'd want to fix stuff like that before we start preemptively thanking God for the positive imaginative condition of Guatemala's juniors.

1 comment:

marina villatoro said...

I think I took more of your stance as well. Her version is as though a lot of these kids have a choice to read a book or play or work. when most of them have to go straight to work at the age of 3, they have no idea what a book is, nor could probably recite the alphabet.