recess radio program

09/06/06
First School Books
    by John Cech

Our children will be skipping off to school in a few days, if they aren't already there, and trudging home with their backpacks stuffed with text books. China is the source of probably the oldest text for young people -- in continuous use, in one form or another, for over two thousand years. It's called "The Twenty-Four Paragons of Filial Piety." It's a series of didactic examples of commendable behavior, taken from ancient Confucian teachings about the honor and respect that children should pay to their parents and their ancestors. Some of the sacrifices that young people make on behalf of their folks would seem gruesome by contemporary Western standards. In one of the tamer of these paragons, an eight year old boy named Wu Meng, from a humble family without even the means to buy a mosquito net, allows the insects to bite him so that his parents can rest.

The Pilgrims gave us one of the most popular books in colonial America, The New England Primer, a text that is also filled with examples of filial piety. In the Primer, the "dutiful child"-- a young resident of Plymouth or Boston -- was asked to keep a dozen promises, among them: "I will honour my Father and Mother. I will obey my Superiours. I will submit to my Elders."

By the time we reach the Dick and Jane books, we are on more familiar ground. Now parents are the providers of all material and emotional comfort, and children are obliged to do very little in return other than to be pleasant and appreciative. Some days, that may seem to be as much as we can hope for in our raucous, rough and tumble society, where manners and courtesy, let alone filial piety, can often seem to be forgotten gestures of the ancient past. And then one hears about a young man who gave up a promising college football career in order to donate one of his kidneys to his ailing grandmother. His story of filial piety is currently being made into a movie. Thank goodness. And they didn't even have to invent a happy ending. The young man's generosity actually did save his grandmother and earn him a full scholarship. Of course, it always comes down to the fact that we've got to try to be the paragons ourselves, and make our own lives the solid texts that we hope your children will read and learn from and follow. Now that's an even older text than Confucious, and just as hard to write.

Copyright 2006 John Cech

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."