One of the goals of education is to leave seeds planted in students’ heads. Some seeds sprout right away and grow into trees that always bear fruit. Others sprout several years later, when conditions are right. Some never grow. And some grew so long ago, back in our first days of school or even before, that we never think about the harvest because we take it for granted.
Every now and again, I find myself pausing to think about one of those earliest seeds. Such was the case today, and I pondered the meaning of words etched deeply into my brain. What was the real message in that little nursery rhyme? I asked. And what did it tell me about my life today?
It shook me.
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream
Simple singsong stuff? Think again.
Consider the first line: The speaker is not suggesting, but rather demanding, that the boat be rowed. I say “demanding” because the speaker repeats the word “row” for emphasis. Row, row, row, like the cadenced bark from a drill sergeant. Obviously, the speaker personifies today’s American corporate economy, where increased demands on workers (“row, row, row!”) result in increased productivity, which yields burgeoning corporate profits that the workers are not sharing in. (For more, see Aesop, “The Lion’s Share.”)
Think of the sinister (because subliminal) message this nursery rhyme sends to today’s toddlers: They are doomed to a life of toil. Through a seemingly harmless little song, this brainwashing has been occurring for decades. Can it even be reversed? Can today’s children ever know a world where they are not always feverishly paddling? If they are continuously bending their backs over the oars, the utopian concept of “gently down the stream,” emphasis on “gently,” is a fleeting illusion to be pursued but never attained.
The third line is tyrannical in its irony: “merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily.” Think of it: The modern-day taskmasters go so far as to link merriment with working. In other words, the boaters should embrace the ever-increasing demands of their jobs. Work should make them happy. Where are we, in America or North Korea?
The song’s fourth line, “Life is but a dream,” is reminiscent of Dante’s “all hope abandon, ye who enter here.” The first two lines introduce the student singers/boaters to the omniscient, omnipresent corporate dictator, who uses a simple activity like boating as a metaphor for work and also demands increased productivity. The third line (“merrily”) is a sadistic, ironic admonition to enjoy an ever-more-demanding life that is ever more wedded to the insatiable demands of industrial bean counters. We can almost hear Captain Bligh calling out to the rowers: “Merrily, ladies and gentlemen, or you’ll taste the lash.” And then, at the end, the boaters learn that their hellish life is “but a dream,” a phrase that sucks the hope out of the word “dream” and spits it on the floor of the bottomless pit.
I’ll bet you didn’t know you’ve been carrying all that around in your subconscious. Now, get back to work.