We were given the chance, in two hours, to turn one piece of clothing into
200 points another piece of clothing, but hacking clothes for some reason seemed to me the least interesting thing in the world. I guess like with hardware you had to have grown up with it, to get a real feel for it, before you look at a bunch of junk and see possibilities. Even though I’ve never thrown out clothes, only gave them to my younger cousins or recycled them into rags, I’ve never lacked anything to wear either. How was I to know what to make?
So I spent that entire time procrastinating with the Arduino project. At the beginning I thought it would be the easiest one, because geez, I already know how to code, this is going to be child’s play. But this project, it’s completely different. The Arduino is this supposedly all-powerfull piece of technology that can do these amazing things, but only if you already know what you want. I haven’t ever really felt the need for something like this, for any project, and intellectually I know what the Arduino does but it’s still all so abstract.
A lot of this wretched overthinking was the direct product of the work from my other classes, all of which caution against devising a solution that in the first place no one needs. My problems seemed insignificant and small, so I tried to listen to other people’s problems instead, my parents’, my friends’, one of whom constantly complained of being miserable at work, but no Arduino can solve that.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m rather at a loss with all these new tools, even with clothes and sewing machines, which are not at all new except to me. I’ve found instead a retrenchment in all the things I was already familiar with, which is actually only one thing, which is writing.
In our discussion I found the class torn between the mechanics of inequality and the optics of it. The mechanics is the part where you go into schools that are already outperforming others and give children things they might or might not need, because you desperately want your program to succeed. The mechanics is which movement or discipline is funded and domesticated and which movement is not, because you need your scientist warriors for your Cold War. The optics are the covers of Make magazine.
It’s not that the covers don’t mean anything, and certainly, images can perpetuate myths, but an art historian made this observation of the late twentieth century: That in order to retain its control of political power, the ruling class gave up its control of cultural power. We see the echoes of this now, when the media is so dominated by liberals and yet the state houses seem to be entirely populated by right wing extremists. The difference between the optics and the mechanics is that the optics are so, so easily papered over, and to get at anything approaching a diagnosis and a prescription you’ve got to go beyond that. You’ve got to.
This book pierces so much of what is romanticized as childhood, examining the science artifacts meant for children not as reflection of the children themselves, but as reflection of larger, contemporary trends and thoughts. (I was shocked to hear someone last time exclaiming that she hated the boys in the book, even though Onion has been extremely careful to frame the problematic behaviors as depicted by adults, not actually as perpetuated by children).
Naturally, I couldn’t help but think back to my own childhood. Was I the child in Heinlein’s conception or Oppenheimer’s? I was the most obedient child you could imagine, outwardly possessing no independent thought, though I did tell anyone who asked that I had no dream for the future except eating my parents out of their house and home. On the other hand, I had one friend whose diary she foolishly permitted me to read later, whose dream in sixth grade (sixth grade!) was to become the President of the United States, despite her being Vietnamese and her having never set foot in the US. I laughed, helplessly and in her face for what felt like a straight hour. But my point is, I don’t know whose childhood was more typical. Different children are different, I felt. All horrifying creatures, yes, but different still.
That’s one battle fought throughout the book, over what children really are, how they really feel, what they really want, but not as a battle in its own right and only as a proxy for more political and more difficult questions. These boys–as the science fiction writers and the policy makers and the museum curators were acutely aware–would have formed the future generation of citizens. Will they be scientist-soldiers, like Matt in Heinlein’s Space Cadet, or will they be antiwar activists? It’s no less than a battle over the soul of the United States.
That’s why the legacies of both Heinlein and Oppenheimer are complicated. Heinlein seemed the unequivocal misogynist, but made explicit political statements about intercultural relations in his books despite possible backlash. Oppenheimer committed to paying his Explainers and recruited them from diverse backgrounds, but his museum consciously avoided political questions, unlike Heinlein who at least engaged them. (Also, one thing that’s probably important: Oppenheimer helped make the atomic bomb).
The real children of the Cold War, the children who grew up with Heinlein’s books, Onion suggested, would in time become intensely critical if not of science, then of nuclear science. Try as adults might to protect the sacredness of childhood, on young minds Duck and Cover routines might have made more of an impression than the Heinlein’s juveniles. Whether that made them more militaristic or less–remember that the college activists made up only a very small part of the population–who can really say.
One final thread in this book I’d like to talk about is about the sacralization of childhood (only because I know the thread about gender and science will be thoroughly discussed tomorrow). Though I know nothing of child psychology, I can’t help but sympathize with the views of the briefly discussed children’s liberationists, who want to liberate the children from the nuclear family, typically a place of entrapment for women. This raises the possibilities of child-rearing becoming more a social responsibility than an individual one for individual families, which will encourage more public goods institutions like daycare and school lunch. Breaking the barrier between the child’s sphere and an adult’s would also allow young people to become more active politically and to be aware of the social responsibilities they bear. Equalizing the child’s age without celebrating it, as did Oppenheimer, will free up the conversations around LGBT issues, where the false “what about the children” cudgel has been consistently deployed.
Is the liberation of children the needed response, I wonder, to the initial problem posed at the beginning of this book? If scientific curiosity has been popularly conceived for so long as the domain of white male children, then is the opening up of that domain necessarily on race, gender, as well as age? Is that opening up so radical as to encompass the quintessential American nuclear family, considering the fact that child-rearing in other parts of the world might really be much more communally based? As always, Onion’s book has provoked interesting questions, though this one I do wish she had further explored.