Story 01: An Optimistic Time

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Plunging In With Enthusiasm

Written by George Hein

Incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm. —Woody Allen

Mike Spock and I are the same age and moved to the Boston area at approximately the same time, early in the tumultuous 1960s. In Mike's first chapter, he describes how his personal attributes and institutional experiences influenced the work included in Boston Stories. The rich and turbulent '60s was another important influence on the development of The Children's Museum, as was much previous activity in education and museums, some rediscovered in the '60s. All of us were impacted by those times of great social and political change.

I came to Boston in 1962 as a thirty-year-old to begin my first professional job, teaching chemistry at Boston University. Although the first few years of my life were unsettled, my school experience was conventional for a middle-class child. Learning was easy for me and, once I'd learned English—not so difficult for a seven-year-old—I had no problems attending public elementary and high school in upstate New York. I attended nearby Cornell University intending to prepare for a career as a doctor, my father's profession, but switched to chemistry after unpleasant encounters with my highly competitive classmates as well as delightful summer jobs in a chemical research laboratory. I continued to graduate school and then spent a few years as a post-doctoral fellow, all of which left me well prepared for an academic career in the rapidly expanding higher education field of the 1960s. When I arrived in Boston, the world felt stable and prosperous to me, despite the cold war, civil rights struggles in the South, and obvious inequalities in society. I was aware enough to know that I had been lucky in being too young for World War II (my older brother served in Europe); able to avoid the Korean War because science majors who did reasonably well on the Draft Deferment Test (a version of the SATs I'd taken just two years earlier) were not called up; and qualified as a beneficiary of the recently initiated National Science Foundation's generous graduate assistantships, postdoctoral fellowships and research grants to scientists. Whatever social consciousness I could muster was not sufficient for me to think that there was anything fundamentally in need of change in our society; at least nothing that required major commitment from me. I felt free to pursue my middle class life.

In 1962, I was married, had three young children, and believed (naively!) that most major life decisions were behind me for years to come. A year later, my wife and I had bought a large Victorian house in suburban Newton; she, too, had an academic position; our older children were settled in the Newton schools (the youngest still at home with a live-in au pair) and I had established a research program; planted a garden and built a grape arbor. We had begun a family life in a community of similarly situated young professionals and I was even more certain that I was settled for decades. I recognize now that this view was shockingly narrow. My own limited perspective seems even more incomprehensible in hindsight when I reflect that I was the son of Jewish refugees from Germany, the youngest of a family that had already lived in three countries, that we all had learned (at least) three languages and that my father had last re-established himself professionally with some difficulty at the age of fifty!

By 1972, a short decade later, every aspect of my life had changed. I was no longer a chemist but was on my fourth career as a director of an early childhood educational consulting group. I had become politically engaged through active participation in the anti-war movement; was no longer married; and had become fiercely critical of many aspects of our society.

The period described in Boston Stories reflects a time in which all of us were affected by the powerful forces then transforming our society. My own innocence no more shielded me from the drama of the 1960s than did either Mike's awareness of his own complex development or his bold step to assume a position for which he had little formal preparation. The events of that tumultuous decade that impinged upon us are too rich and numerous to describe in detail here. They have been analyzed and discussed repeatedly in an extensive literature. But there can be little doubt that for both better and worse, they shaped what all of us, including the staff at The Children's Museum, accomplished. The major social/political events include the civil rights and women's rights movements; the Viet Nam War and its powerful anti war movement; the emergence (reemergence?) of protests as a political force, both peaceful and violent; the widespread use of federal statutes and policies to bring about social change, ranging from federal support for education to the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the emergence of new thinking both in the natural and social sciences; and the general loosening of social strictures prevailing in previous decades.

What follows is my personal reflection of how the events and moods of the 1960s might have served as a frame for the exciting stories that make up this volume. I can only describe that time through recollecting my own experiences. In 1966, I decided to leave my position as an academic chemist and after some searching I joined the Elementary Science Study (ESS), a project at Educational Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Massachusetts. My motives were mixed, but included dissatisfaction with my closest colleagues, who were mostly more conservative than I, dismay that my own research had become associated with defense-related activities (and was supported in part by Department of Defense funds) as well as general concerns with education, as I observed my own children's progress through schooling. Joining ESS made me feel that I was associated with more likeminded colleagues, free of the locked cabinet in my office with "secure" files, and actively engaged in a socially important activity, namely improving education.

Our work in the domain of formal education was closely connected to the work at The Children's Museum. That commonality was reinforced by the many personal connections between people associated with the two organizations. For example, Phylis Morrison, along with her future husband, Philip Morrison, was involved in the early period of ESS and later worked at The Children's Museum; my first office mate at ESS, Bernie Zubrowski, subsequently joined the museum staff; Cynthia Cole, who first invited me to Lesley University a few years later, had worked previously at the museum. Also, the actual activities at the two organizations had significant commonality. Our "units" and the museum's MATCh kits were two parallel approaches to bring materials into classrooms (and shared similar problems) and more important, both groups shared a legacy of progressive education that formed a theoretical and social background to our work. I feel confident that the spirit and atmosphere at the museum couldn't have been too different from what we were experiencing across town in response to the climate of the times.

Next: Confidence in the Future