Thursday, August 23, 2007

Imagination in the Junkyard

Anthony Esolen at Beliefnet has written a blog post about how kids don't hang out with adults doing proper jobs anymore, and therefore their imaginations are being stifled. We don't let our sons go down to the junkyard, we don't let our girls watch us roll out the crust for our apple pies. Therefore, the past is good, the present is bad, and the world is going to hell.

Here's an excerpt:

It used to be common for boys (I'm thinking of junkyards here, after all) to
hang around grown men and pester them, or to overhear their conversations about
bauxite, platinum, catalytic converters, drive trains, and cheap labor from
Someplace Else. That was bound not only to provide them with a fund of
general knowledge, but to stretch their imaginations -- as was, likewise, their
nearness to fascinating machines, like pile drivers or backhoes. People in
general were proud of the cleverness of human industry: old-time postcards would
include photos of coal-mines, fisheries, sawmills, lumber camps, and
quarries. You understood that without such places, as "ugly" as some snobs
might consider them, you don't have that city with the bright lights and the
fashionable people dining at Toots Shor's.

I'm not sure what has happened to that fascination with the human mastery over inert and difficult matter. I am sure that school teaches next to nothing about it;
if it does mention it, it is with a faint sniff of contempt or suspicion.
In any case, the boys (I'm talking about junkyards, again; you could say
analogous things about what girls used to learn by hanging around women doing
their work) who are not at the junkyards of the world, who are not hanging
around men-who-know-things, are having their imaginations stultified. Of
that I am sure.

I would guess that as much unfair scorn is directed at junkyards by school teachers... at least that same amount of scorn is probably directed the other way. Unfair or not.

It's as damaging for a bookish child with no mechanical tendencies to be ridiculed by an adult who doesn't value higher education as it would be for an athlete or someone who works with his hands to be scorned by an adult with a Ph.D. in philosophy. It goes both ways -- small-minded people on both ends of the spectrum devalue the people on the other end, to protect their own choices.

I have trouble buying the romantic (or defeatist?) notion that the past was so much better, cleaner, brighter, purer, and more interesting than the present. I probably wouldn't let my 7 yo go hang out at the junkyard with a bunch of unfamiliar men, no. That might be a good thing, though. Back in the good old days, there were plenty of rotten things going on that didn't involve good old fashioned values and honesty and love. The comment thread for Mr. Esolen's post was full of people saying the same things they always say: The playgrounds are too safe, the language is too disinfected, the literature is too nice, the kids aren't allowed to play with guns, TV is bad, we need more bloodsports, and all those high-falutin' jerky intellectual environmentalist tree-lovers need to learn to respect and appreciate people who are different from them. Yeeeeahhh.... Good. There was even a comment (my favorite!) about the monstrous parents who put tiny violins into their children's hands and expect them to play them. The horror!

I do get what he's saying, in a way. "Box of greasy junk" would be at the top of my son's Christmas wish list, if he knew it existed. But even without having a mentor with grease under his fingernails, he manages to fixate on inventing things, he manages to tinker with tools, and wonder about motors. His mother has a graduate degree and his father is a software developer, and still he likes Legos. Having been cruelly kept from the junkyard all his life, he still has an imagination you have to hack through with a machete to get to his consciousness, when you want him to eat dinner or avoid walking into traffic.

I think I'll skip the junkyard. He can read about it in a book.


  1. And here my son spent his morning agape as the chimney sweep cleaned the fireplace and such. Noise! (a huge shopvac) Dirt! Old burned wood smells! Chance to ask questions like, "You mean you're not going on the roof to climb down through the chimney?" With the answer, "Do I look like Santa to you?"

    Seventh heaven.

  2. ::kristen stands up and whoops and hollers and cheers the lovely lydia::

    first off - HOW INCREDIBLY SEXIST his statements were!!! it got my hackles up. especially since i was the girl who LOVED all that kind of stuff -- helping my dad change the oil, cutting wood, getting to work the splitter with my uncle, but i also liked doing the baking kinds of stuff. argh!!!

    and yeah - part of me wishes that this 2007 world were a bit like the 70's world of being able to play outside w/a little less supervision, but was that really so good back then? there were some really bad things going on back then that weren't discussed so much with the world at large.

    i'm pretty sure my kids imaginations are not being stifled. i LOVE listening to their imaginings. they both have their imaginary friends and the stories they create give me warm fuzzies inside.

    oh dear. i've just written a blog on your comment section...oops.

  3. Rebecca, welcome. :) Real chimney sweeps are simultaneously fascinating and also disappointing, right? After the skipperty dippers in Mary Poppins. I think "Step in Time" is my favorite song in any musical ever, but I've never been able to persuade a real chimney sweep to sing it. (OR to refer to my husband as "the master.") Hehehe.

    Kristen, you are welcome to blog in my comments any time, in fact, I beseech you to blog in my comments, I honor your blogging in my comments, I sit up all night and pine for your blogging in my comments. The end.