Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Young chemists under the law

Jerry Stratton, May 31, 2006

Yes, I was one of those kids who had model rockets, and always had a handful of model rocket “engines” on hand. And I had a chemistry set filled with strange chemicals that went snap, crackle, and pop, changed colors, and created strange and lasting smells in our basement. It might even have been a Gilbert chemistry kit.

It was a big white cardboard box whose wide cover lifted upward to reveal dozens of tiny vials of mystery, and experiments written in tiny text. I ignored most of the experiments in favor of randomly combining different chemicals and taking my own copious notes about which combinations made the loudest noises or otherwise had the most interesting results.

As I recall, it also came with a microscope and a few slides, to the horror of the insects in our yard.

This Wired article sounds like something Arthur C. Clarke would write: a science fiction novel about children huddled in dark corners performing forbidden rites… holding glass vials above a flickering flame, as the safety police close in.

June 1, 2006: The basement was my university

The Wired article about chemistry sets is spreading slowly through the geeknet. It is becoming an example of the struggle between structured and unstructured education. Dan Smith, on Slashdot, writes:

One of the things that has bothered me for a long time is that educators and policy-makers don’t seem to understand the crucial educational role of unstructured, unsupervised, childrens’ activity, from, say, about age 7 to 14.

It’s bothered me, too, but it bothers me more that even parents are becoming more and more worried about their children having time to play on their own.

I often think the most underrated social injustice is the different self-educational opportunities available to kids who live in a house with a basement versus kids that live in an apartment.

My basement was an upstairs room in our barn at first. After we moved I had my own room. When we first moved into that house, there was a window that we couldn’t get to, directly between the sides of a peaked roof. We (my dad, that is) took out the wall that had to lead to this space, and converted what had been an unused and inaccessible attic space into a small bedroom. There wasn’t a lot of space between those slanted ceilings, but there was enough for a desk (where I did a lot of writing), a ham radio, and a used TRS-80 Model I on which I first learned to play around with programming.

Chemistry experiments were saved for our new, spacious basement. It had a bar space with a sink that washed away quite a few smelly chemistry experiments.

Dan’s posting reminds me of something Andrew Weil said in The Natural Mind:

These changes in point of view cannot happen overnight, for they require acceptance of painful truths: that children daydreaming in class, for example, might be using their minds much more profitably than children paying attention.

Free play is an extraordinarily important part of a child’s growth, and it’s something they’re losing year by year. Part of the problem is that people today want reward without work. Creativity without destruction. But creativity is dangerous.

I wonder if there will come a day when programming and scripting experimentation will be considered too dangerous.

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