Jane and Science

WE had been spending Sunday with elderly friends of whom we see all too little, and when, just after dusk, the conversation took a subtly valedictory turn our small Jane, aged five, seized a chance to murmur in a corner: ‘Mother, mayn’t I just walk along ahead of you as far as the church and skip all these lingering farewells? ‘ (Where she picked up the words I couldn’t say: how often can we tell for sure where anyone picked up any of his words?) If we did not know the speaker we should doubtless think: ‘There is still another hard-boiled American child, 1941 model, brought up on science primers and brass tacks.’ But with the advantage of fairly close acquaintance we saw that Jane was fishing in her own way for something very old-fashioned indeed. What she wanted, and all she wanted, was a ten minutes’ walk after dark through the main street, at this hour deserted — an interval of independence and exploit, alone with the widely spaced, withdrawn village mansions, the lamplight on the snow, the straight, narrow cut of the sidewalk between fresh plough drifts, and above all the tremors of a delicious secret adventure.

When, before the black bulk of the church, we picked her up, some glints from the frosty stars seemed to have got into her eyes, and she was breathing hard, though she had gone at the slowest possible saunter. She was, for once, too thoroughly steeped in wistful beatitude even to gabble.

Throughout Jane’s processes for at least two years past we have consistently detected this same dualism of the hard and the soft, the realistic and the fanciful. The two exist side by side, completely separate. They do not interpenetrate; they do not in any way embarrass or interfere with each other. It is, in fact, perfectly evident that both are enhanced by the logical clash between them. She seems to have a strictly departmentalized brain, and its contents are a standing affront to the official theory: to wit, that the natural child mind merges fact inextricably with fancy and must be laboriously educated to pick them apart. To Jane the borderline of either is as sharp as a new-ground scythe.

Does she, for instance, ‘believe in’ Santa Claus? This is one of the standard subjects on which enlightened parents are always exchanging confidences, especially between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s. There are, for Jane, two answers: the first, ‘She never did’; the second, ‘She always will.’ It is not enough to say that the one is as true as the other: either is hopelessly false without the other. That is why we are not steam-rollered fiat under the excellent and indispensable John B. Watson’s warning that the child who finds he has been fooled about Santa Claus will not later trust his parents for the truth on graver subjects. I have always been sorry that Dr. Watson never knew another child of our acquaintance who said, jigging excitedly before her hung stocking: ‘Will Santa Claus surely find it? Will he, will he, will he? — And, O Mother, don’t forget the orange on the top!’ Jane — who might have been that child — will help us pick out new tree decorations; she will scout the snowy upper pasture with us to cut and drag in the perfect fir; and then she will insist on going to bed an hour early to give Saint Nick more leeway to do himself justice.

It was on the same principle that she dealt with the factual expositions in her first science primer. Its chapter on the solar system opened with a flock of semi-rhetorical questions, all framed to elicit from the young a ringing and contemptuous negative; for instance, ‘Would you believe that day comes because a sun-god rolls the sun into the sky?’ Jane’s answer, prompt and firm, was: ‘Why, of course! What else would I believe?’ She proved as ready as the next one to accept the low-down about the universe — granted a bearable approach. In fact, she became forthwith a clamoring candidate for more light, more diagrams, more facts and figures, than the authors of Discovering Our World had found it convenient to vouchsafe. When she read, for instance, ‘About 450 years ago a very wise man became quite sure that the earth was shaped like a ball,’ she demanded: ‘What was the name of that man? Where did he live? What was the color of his hair? Why doesn’t the book tell anything interesting about him?’ And so throughout. The science in the book was never half scientific enough for the realist section of her make-up. But the intuitive and lyrical section thoroughly resented the steady patronage of everything to which she was deeply committed by her will-to-believe — a faculty that, in young or old, cannot enjoy being treated as if it were mere primitive credulity.

Jane will never be old enough, I fancy, to perturb herself with the classic problem of logical reconciliation between science and religion. She will merely say: ‘Who wants to reconcile them, and what for?’ Her parents, when the nebular hypothesis entered their lives, took to arguing with Sunday-school teachers; but not Jane. Two stories of creation (or of anything else) are better than one, any day; and if they contradict each other — very well, they contradict each other. If the non-scientific account did not exist, she would probably find it necessary to invent it. Like every farm child, she has not the slightest difficulty in accepting the cycle of conception, gestation, birth — and it has seemingly never crossed her mind to doubt that we too are of the animal kingdom. Nevertheless, having overhauled and compared with a perfectly open mind the various working evasions on the subject of where babies come from, she has calmly decided to put her trust in the good old stork.

These experiences with Jane, and a miscellany of other experiences and observations, suggest to me that when we torment ourselves with the question of what we owe it to our children to put into their heads we are mostly barking up the wrong tree. I do not believe that the issue is chiefly one of ethics or of pedagogy at all, or that it is for the parental generation to settle. It looks to me, rather, like an affair of plant chemistry, in which the rôle we play is simply that of the passive soil that either does or doesn’t yield certain of the elements of nutrition. There is surely more than one kind of truth; no kind is all-sufficing; perhaps no two young, growing organisms can flourish to the full on the same diet, though it seem to us a perfectly balanced ration. If we have what Jane can utilize, that is her good luck — and ours. What she is prevented from utilizing, because of the way she is made, her capillaries will just reject as a plant rejects surplus food; and when parents feel rueful about this rejection it is pretty much as if the good earth were to complain despairingly that it can’t do a thing with these headstrong young seedlings that have been committed to its care. To want our children’s system of metabolism radically altered (for the better, naturally — nos judices) is virtually to want them born over again — of different parents.

In all the essentials they seem, not to be asking us, but to be telling us. We can be wise for ourselves, if we want to pay for wisdom at the going prices: but who, save by luck, can be wise for his young? Parental self-importance is put in its place every time Jane, coming to us with some new thirst for enlightenment, quickly supplements her demand: ‘Now, don’t tell me the truth: tell me something that’s fun! ‘