The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most. "...  ...John Ruskin.

Commentary of the Day - April 18, 2008: Color Me Ishmael.  Guest commentary by Carolyn Foster Segal.

Color me annoyed.  Color me exasperated.  Or despairing.  Or frustrated.  Just don't -- even though it would be the most precise description--color me blue.

Crayola, in honor of the 50th anniversary of its 64-box, recently sponsored a contest inviting children to send in their ideas for new names for eight of its crayons.

The company supposedly received over 20,000 entries.  So, color me baffled -- I just can't figure out why, out of all those entries, the judges chose the eight new names announced last Wednesday.  Color me confused -- because I can't find a single color mentioned.

The bright yellow crayon formerly known as "Laser Lemon" is now "Super Happy" -- a color and condition not to be confused with the new "Happily Ever After" (which has shed its old designation of "Turquoise Blue").  "Orchid" has turned into the perfectly opaque "Best Friends," while "Hot Magenta" will now answer only to "Famous."  There is a kind of logic to that last one, given our celebrity culture, and two other winners at least have some allusive connection to the colors they represent: "Beaver," which I'll grant was due for a makeover, is now the even-worse "Bear Hug," and "Screamin' Green" has been tamed into the gentle "Giving Tree."  Aside from the technical, grammatical, and social difficulties ("Pass me the Famous."  "Who has Happily Ever After?"  "I don't  know, but I need Bear Hug right now"), there seems to be a pattern here.  Perhaps the idea is that we are -- or can be -- the crayon/cliché we choose to color with.  Certainly the lines seem drawn here:  happiness, fun, sentimentality, calmness, mindless success.

Color these entries bland and vague.  The two entries that threatened to send me completely over the edge are the revisions of "Wild Tangerine" -- henceforth to be called "Fun in the Sun" (a curiously dated phrase that has no discernible connection to any color at all and that seems, in fact, anti-crayon, prompting the disturbing specter of a lump of melted wax) -- and "Wild Watermelon" -- whose juicy potential has been reduced to the mindless "Awesome."

All things change, of course, even monikers and marketing programs for crayons, although we might argue that, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein (badly), rose is rose is rose.

Some of Crayola's revisions are to be commended, such as the early disappearance of the offensive name "Flesh."  Why am I so opposed to this latest set of revisions?  Well, first of all, this new crop of names just seems to be rather -- how to say this gently? -- dumb.  The selections seem uninspired.  And uninspiring.

These prize-winning entries are, of course, part of a larger trend: why learn about distinctions among shades and names of colors, why worry about specific details, when you can settle for a vague or general adjective or a ready-made phrase?   According to the company's spokeswoman, as quoted in my local paper: "We wanted these colors to reflect what was important to children now."  Color me concerned.  What exactly are these final selections telling us?  Is this the final trickle-down effect of all those conferences, talk shows, and articles on self-esteem?  Come to think of it, in keeping with the "feelings, nothing more than feelings" school of naming, "Self Esteem" might make a nice replacement for "Gold" or "Carnation Pink" (or any color -- after all, it apparently doesn't matter in the brave new world of coloring); maybe I'll send in that entry next year.

These selections are all unthinking and cloying "heart": there's no mind here, no evidence of critical thinking, no metaphorical invention, no evidence of imagination, no invitation to coloring aficionados to use their imagination.

As I studied the results of the contest, I kept picturing all those little contest winners and their followers showing up in my writing classes ten years from now.  Color this ironic: I already spend a good amount of time circling the words "amazing," "great" and "awesome" in my college students' papers; in an unofficial workshop survey, these were the most common -- and in some cases only -- descriptions used in papers on van Gogh’s Starry Night, Picasso’s Old Guitarist (keep the revisionists away from Picasso's blue period, please) and Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte (the last a nice example of "fun in the sun").  And what do these same student writers claim is the effect of art on them?  It makes them "happy," they explain; looking at these awesome works of art makes them feel "relaxed."

But I don't want my students to ask -- to expect -- only that of art and literature (during a particularly trying session, I pointed out that they had just put viewing the Sistine Ceiling in the same category as taking a nice long bubble bath).  Art and literature -- and the gang of 64 -- shouldn't lull us; they should move us, shake us -- wake us up to possibility, to a world brimming with -- dare I say it -- colorful potential.

© 2008, Carolyn Foster Segal.
Carolyn Foster Segal is an Associate Professor of English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The Irascible Professor comments: Thanks for a colorful article Carolyn.


Return to main commentary.

© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
Technocrati tag(s):