This was an assignment to write a professional book proposal, adding a last chapter to Rebecca Onion’s Innocent Experiments book, whose ending many felt was rushed.
I propose that Innocent Experiments ends with beautiful ideas.
Much of the book, and much of what I love about it, centers around this unpleasant business of busting myths. Not just any myth. Rebecca Onion has the audacity to bust the myths of the “sacralization of childhood,” something which invites, naturally and openly, the backlash of nostalgia, never a good thing, because nostalgia is not just an amalgamation of inexplicable fondnesses for things from one’s childhood—nostalgia also invokes a sense of origin, of who you are and where you’re from and how you were made, on a cosmic scale. That’s why creation stories are nostalgic, though we’ve never laid in Eve’s womb.
Loathe as Onion or I might be to admit it, you can’t dispel myths with exhaustively researched books, and you can only fight ideas with ideas. When you try to take away something so beautiful as the innocence of childhood, you have to replace it with something else other than the sheer fact of loss.
A short list of examples: 1) Show people data sets that prove true meritocracy never existed all you want, but as long as you still recite the Equality of Opportunities script, folks of the luckless class will keep yearning for meritocracy. You have to reject Equality of Opportunities and embrace Equality of Outcomes, and nothing less. 2) Tressie McMillan Cottom recently said something on the This Is Hell podcast which struck me, that education in the United States is envisioned as benefiting the individual, not as benefiting the collective, which means that the purpose of education has been perverted. What a difference it would make, and what a beautiful idea it would be, if education is not conceived merely as training for future work, but as a public good, because a better educated populace made for a better state.
It is the latter of these ideas that could work as the final chapter of the book. In the conclusion, Onion writes of the boom-bust cycles in STEM jobs, though only lamenting that the STEM scarcity both harmed and blamed young people, while not identifying the cause, and not offering much else. Why are we so susceptible to these cycles? Because unemployment is high and what employment exists is precarious. Why should we blame the individual? Because it exonerates the society. If employment was guaranteed, and if school was not a conveyor belt which churned out young people for the consumption of the corporations, then perhaps these cycles would not matter so much, and perhaps we would not invest so much of our collective imagination in these myths.
But what of the central myth? What can we bring in place of the sacredness of childhood? I believe Onion has already touched upon it when she talked about the children’s liberationists’ movement of a more progressive era. They dreamt of freeing children from the nuclear family and of desegregating the spaces of the child and the adult, where children could freely leave their parents’ home to live elsewhere. This dream of communal living, of children raised by communities rather than by homes, I happen to think could just be potent enough. In the dream, women are freed from the household to pursue anything they wish, which renders the problem moot where they are forced to give up academic and research careers for household chores. In the dream, adults treat all children as if they were their own, and to whatever extent they can they support all kids, not just the few to whom they gave birth. In the dream, children would be protected and adults would be protected, with a few provisions for the development of a child’s brain, not yet fully formed, and a child’s strength, of course. Most importantly in the dream we would understand our true origin, that we and everything we touch and everything we love is socially created, and our nostalgia, when it is tied, is to people, not things. I’d like to call these, if you allow me, necessary fantasies.
I understand that this proposal might be, um, somewhat out of step with the rest of the book. Fundamentally, the chapter if written will be on a completely different mode of writing and analysis, because the prospective chapter despite all its prospective flare and prospective heart won’t be nearly so clear-eyed and skeptical of nostalgia and innocence (which itself is a nostalgic concept), as Rebecca Onion has proved throughout. In my hands though, I hope to convince you, if I have not already, of the necessity of countervailing ideas, and of the fact that they, the ideas as presented here, is the natural resolution for the busted myths.