Old English nursery rhymes are archaic and absurd; why are we still teaching them to children in 2019?

  • Many old English nursery rhymes are ridiculous and problematic in an incredibly obvious way.

  • Babies falling from trees, non-consensual kissing, violence, animals doing questionable things, sexism, confusing tableaus, not to mention verses so bonkers that no one really knows what’s going on — that encapsulates most nursery rhymes we were taught as children.

  • Shockingly, the English do not hold the monopoly on old, weird nursery rhymes. Many of our regional rhymes are nothing short of flabbergasting.

'Allegedly Problematic' is a monthly column by Kuzhali Manickavel, which takes a cheeky look at literary/cultural offerings from the past that would now be considered, well, problematic — and asks, 'But are they really?'.

Read more from the series here.

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This column gets most (if not all) of its mileage by making fun of irrelevant things white people have done in the past, particularly when it was done about 100 years ago. This is not only an easy thing to do, it automatically qualifies as a brave act of patriotism if you do this while being Indian. Today’s column is on English nursery rhymes, which are great to make fun of because they are really old, ridiculous and problematic in an incredibly obvious way. There are babies falling from trees, non-consensual kissing, violence, animals doing questionable things, sexism, confusing tableaus, not to mention the rhymes which are just so bonkers that no one really knows what’s going on.

Shockingly, the English do not hold the monopoly on old, weird nursery rhymes. Many of our regional rhymes are nothing short of flabbergasting, but you generally don’t see those rhymes being taught in schools. Children are not asked to recite them in public to show off their language skills. They are not seen as a sign of good education and general poshness. These distinctions are reserved for the English nursery rhymes alone, even the ones that are completely bananas from start to finish. But this only happens to some Indian children. Which is why when privileged, English-speaking people like myself stumble upon certain children’s books and English texts from outside our incestuous little bubble, we are simply aghast to find these problematic rhymes nestled amongst moral tales for children.

 Old English nursery rhymes are archaic and absurd; why are we still teaching them to children in 2019?

Of course, the English do not hold the monopoly on old, weird nursery rhymes

Most of these nursery rhymes were written between the 16th and 18th centuries. They were probably unfamiliar to Indians back then and continue to be unfamiliar to us now. So why are we still teaching them to children in India in 2019? Nursery rhymes are good for children. Not just the upper class ones, but all of them. They help in developing language skills, they teach children how to differentiate sounds and most importantly, it allows them to practice their clapping. And though we are generally not supposed to care for things outside our bubbles, I wonder why we aren’t teaching these children better nursery rhymes. Why aren’t we writing better nursery rhymes?

If this were a better column, it would probably go on to talk about the quality of English being taught to different classes of people. But this is not that column. Instead, I would like to talk about just how bonkers some of these nursery rhymes are. We will now take a look at some of the more jaw-dropping English nursery rhymes that are being circulated amongst the generation of Indians who are presently too small to defend themselves. We begin with an old favourite which has, embarrassingly, percolated through many different strata of Indian society.

Chubby cheeks, dimple chin
Rosy lips, teeth within
Curly hair, very fair
Eyes are blue — lovely too.
Teacher’s pet, is that you?
Yes, Yes, Yes!

India is a complicated country. On the one hand, we have fashionable people on the internet telling us that the skin whitening/lightening industry is bad and we should all be proud of being brown. On the other hand, we have children extolling the many virtues of the teacher’s pet, the most striking being the fact that this pet is very fair. WHO ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LISTEN TO??!?

Fashionable people are amazing and we should all like them in the hopes that they will like us. And yet, the children are India’s future or something like that. Problematic colorism issues aside though, is this such a good nursery rhyme that it deserves to be handed down, generation to generation? No it is not. It is stupid. And I feel like just because children are “just children” doesn’t mean they have to learn gross nursery rhymes like this.

Allegedly Problematic Ranking: Very problematic and also stupid. And gross.

We will look at more wtf rhymes in our next fun instalment.

Kuzhali Manickavel is the author of the short story collections 'Insects Are Just like You and Me except Some of Them Have Wings' and 'Things We Found During the Autopsy', both available from Blaft Publications

Updated Date: Sep 09, 2019 14:13:51 IST