The Existential Despair of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
In December, Caitlin Flanagan revisited “the most disturbing Christmas special.”
Everything Ms. Flanagan writes about the show is true. Both Santa and Comet behave abominably. Donner is a chauvinistic jerk. Even Sam the Snowman is not above criticism—his obsession with silver and gold surely is not healthy.
Yet they are not the reason we watched the show faithfully as kids. We relished the unforgettable lines of Hermey, Rudolph, and Yukon Cornelius. Even now a year doesn’t go by that someone in my family doesn’t say, “Let’s be independent together,” or “Don’t you know that bumbles bounce?”
Caitlin Flanagan replies:
If I may defer to the school of reader-response criticism, I would say only that we each have our own Rudolph, none more or less accurate than the other. Let us honor Rudolph in our hearts, and try to keep him all the year.
Q & A
Remote schooling has been a misery, Erika Christakis wrote in December—but it’s offering a rare chance to rethink early education entirely. Here, she responds to a reader’s questions about her essay.
Q: I appreciated this article and agreed with it, particularly its observation that schools have remained the same despite our changed understanding of childhood development. What might reforms look like, practically? If you had money and control and support, what would your ideal school look like? — Douglas Baker, Pittsburgh, Pa.
A: Effective educators, research tells us, prize knowledge of child development on two levels: the general (“What does a 6-year-old look like?”) and the specific (“How does this 6-year-old think and learn?”). This deep understanding of childhood and children calls us to reimagine the crushing uniformity of so many school norms and policies (such as unvarying school hours and calendars) that ill-serve the disparate needs of children and families—and often the needs of their teachers, too. If bespoke scheduling seems too radical, we could jettison our cultlike devotion to homework, which burdens children across the socioeconomic and learning spectrums by fueling the specious view that “learning” happens under the auspices of an institution, rather than within the unbounded human brain. Some children need to be left alone after a long school day to juice their learning mojo; others may need much more comprehensive support to unleash their potential than is found in a pack of multiplication flash cards. Adults often balk at this kind of customized education, and the challenges shouldn’t be minimized. But in the long run, it’s surely easier and more cost-effective to educate the individual than to keep tripping over the realities of human development.
Behind the Cover
To mark the launch of the “Inheritance” project, we commissioned the photographer Aaron Turner to create this month’s cover. Turner’s work engages with race and history as he visually represents the relationship between the past and the present. For the cover, he began with Dan Budnik’s 1965 photo of young people in Selma demanding voting rights for their parents and teachers. The resulting image conveys both resilience and fragmentation—persistent themes in our collective American history.
Luise Stauss, Director of Photography
Christine Walsh, Contributing Photo Editor
The print version of “The COVID‑19 Manhattan Project” (January/February 2021) stated that the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were reported to be 95 percent effective at preventing COVID‑19 infections. In fact, the vaccines prevent disease, not infection.