Science and the culture of American childhood, 1900-1980




Onion, Rebecca Stiles

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In American culture of the twentieth century, there has evolved a persistent popular association between the personal qualities of children and of scientists. Efforts to encourage children to get “hooked on science” have consistently noted this affinity, as Americans have ascribed curiosity, wonder, and delight in discovery to their children. Responding to debates within cultural history, childhood studies, and the history of science, this dissertation argues that tracking the ways that this cultural commonplace has been created, and showing how it has depended upon inequalities of gender, race, and class, can help us understand intermingled attitudes of awe and distrust toward science in public culture. In five chapters, the dissertation traces efforts to bring science into children’s popular culture across the twentieth century, showing how these efforts constitute a very visible form of public science. In Chapter One, located in the Progressive Era, the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum offer comparative case studies that show how “science” was perceived as a civilizing or empowering force in children’s lives, depending on their social class. In the interwar period, children’s culture taught that posing questions about the natural and technological worlds was a practice that cemented a white male child’s position as the vanguard of evolution. Chapter Two examines the proliferation of children’s non-fiction and encyclopedias, and Chapter Three shows how chemistry sets created images of modern boyhood. In the postwar era, young scientists began to appear as an endangered species, as science promoters saw popular culture as a threat to the kind of individuality and focus necessary for serious inquiry. Chapters Four and Five show how promoters of the Westinghouse Science Talent Search and Robert Heinlein, author of a series of young-adult science fiction novels, sought to create alternative youth cultures hospitable to science. By examining the images of young inquirers that result from these popularization efforts, I argue that these images helped adults come to terms with their own relationships to innovation, while naturalizing the perception of science as an intellectual project of privilege.


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