Monday, May 26, 2014


There have been many instances where a small but shrill segment of the population rages illogically against something being taught, or not taught, in public schools. But the most insane of them all, I think, would be the furor that was caused by a dragon handpuppet named Pumsy in the early 1990s. Doctors Inlet Elementary School in northeastern Florida pulled the Pumsy program from its curriculum because one parent said it hypnotises children, and that parent in turn was getting all her information from one obscure psychiatrist's opinion.

According to the Associated Press:

The complaint came from Candy Johnson, who has a second-grader at Doctors Inlet Elementary School in northeastern Florida.

"There's a psychiatrist who says this program is very threatening to a child's welfare. It becomes a hypnosis session after a while," she said.

Dr. George Twente of General Hospital in Decatur, Ala., said Pumsy teaches children they can change the way they feel. "You're almost convincing the child he has magical powers," he said.

Twente and Mrs. Johnson said Pumsy was part of the New Age movement, a collection of philosophies often associated with self-healing and reincarnation.

Seriously? What were the teachings of these Pumsy stories that rang alarm bells for these cranks? Well, for one: "It's a practice where you go over what you're going to do in your mind before you do it. For example, when you learn to ride a bike, you go over it in your head first." Okay. And........... the problem with that is?

The Pumsy stories basically taught self-esteem and self-control, urging kids to stop and think logically before jumping into reacting and doing something rashly and impulsively. What parent would have a problem with that? Some severely confused ones, I should think. In fact, the panic reaction to rumors about Pumsy are a textbook example of why people should stop and assess what they're seeing before going off half cocked and blowing their horn like an angry torch-bearing peasant in a Frankenstein movie. More, from the New York Times:

Students are supposed to identify with Pumsy, who learns in the course of her adventures to overcome feelings of confusion and doubt, which she thinks of as "being in her mud mind," by thinking positive thoughts with her "clear mind" and creative thoughts with her "sparkle mind." This metaphor, having three minds for three different clusters of moods or attitudes, was among those that provoked storms of protest from conservative parents.

"They complained that we were teaching children to be schizophrenic," Ms. Anderson said. "So in the new edition we simply added the explicit clarification: of course, Pumsy doesn't have three minds."

Heavy sigh. I suspect these same gullible parents, if properly guided, could also be convinced to extend the same logic and call for a ban on the works of Sigmund Freud, whose fundamental basis of modern psychiatry posits a trifold model (and remember, it's only a model) in which the human mind is composed of an Ego, an Id, and a Superego.

Of course, to do so would discredit the same quack psychiatrist that this angry mom put all her faith in. QED.

The flames of the "controversy", such as it was, were fueled by right-wing pundits and Ultra-Christian conservatives like Chuck Colson. Yes, that Chuck Colson, the Watergate conspirator. Said Colson:

The Pumsy story is just a fairy-tale way of teaching Hinduism. Hindu doctrine teaches that the human mind or spirit is part of God--a spark in the divine fire, a drop in the divine ocean...

What we're seeing here is New Age pantheism in education. It's not sold to teachers that way, of course.

I'm not sure, but I don't think the Pumsy stories are used much nowadays. And that's a shame - everything I've read about them sounds like some of the most logical attitude-improving stuff for children to come down to the pike in a long while, at least for public schools. I suppose these activist parents would prefer their kids be hypnotised by television, ritalin, and goalless boredom instead.

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