Yesterday my father-in-law, my son and I went to the local junkyard for a visit, and to buy an old used bicycle. I like junkyards, and this one is among my favorites: dead buses, an upended steel boat, lots of dead cars, a huge working sawmill (when they aren't junking, the men at the yard provide spruce and oak planks on order), some living cars that don't look so hot, a Model T in a garage, old records, augers, sickles, sledge hammers, post hole diggers, and plenty of tools I don't know the names of. The talk is salty, too, and direct. My father-in-law, an ex-junker himself, and the two men in the barn (who were stripping tires off car wheels) got into a long conversation about platinum in catalytic converters, what to do with shredded tires, how to separate one kind of plastic in a car's bumper from another, how much you can get from the gold in a computer (not much; $36 per 100 computers), where the bauxite is being mined for our aluminum (Africa), where it isn't being mined anymore (Arizona), how the price of copper has swung wildly in the last few months, and why -- you name something that can be crushed, melted, or burned, and they talked about it.
The old man at the yard never graduated from the fifth grade. He dropped out of school in the old days when people had to work hard for a living, and you needed a young fellow's hands and shoulders and back, not to mention his cleverness, to haul in tons of fish, or get ore out of the ground, or load ships with gravel from the mountainside, or build up the biggest junkyard in the county. So he learned a lot of things, as did my father-in-law, who did graduate high school before joining the Navy. Now, maybe the old fellow didn't learn who Canada's second prime minister was (Alexander Mackenzie, for whom the longest river in North America is named -- or for a kinsman? -- if the Missouri is not considered the headwaters of the Mississippi). But then, none of the young people in Canada nowadays know that, either. The old fellow didn't have much book-larnin, but then, neither do the kids whose days are now eaten up in the institution.
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.
The subject is on my mind, because I'll be writing a book soon about the clever ways we've invented to destroy the imagination of a child. All suggestions welcome .....