1960 - The Child Buyer
1960. Nixon and Kennedy debate. The American school system. John Hersey writes The Child Buyer.
“I’m not satisfied when the Soviet Union is turning out twice as many scientists and engineers as we are. I’m not satisfied when many of our teachers are inadequately paid, or when our children go to school part-time shifts. I think we should have an educational system second to none.” (Senator John F. Kennedy)
It's an election year in the United States. President Eisenhower’s second term is almost up and vice-president Richard Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy are campaigning hard for his position.
Nixon has the advantage of experience – both in the domestic and foreign arenas. Kennedy is young, inexperienced and Catholic, and his father was a close friend of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Fortunately for Kennedy, he has a lot of charisma, and this serves him well in the presidential debates – the first ever to be conducted in the United States.
The debates are a new concept and they turn out to be immensely popular. Over 70 million watch the live broadcast of the first debate (the US population is 110 million) on their televisions, and it ends up having a decisive impact on the elections.
The television viewers think that Kennedy won the debate, while the much smaller group of radio listeners thinks that Nixon won, or that it was a tie. Why the discrepancy? Nixon was recovering from a recent hospital stay and had refused makeup, and this meant viewers got to see a close-up of a pale, sickly, underweight vice-president whose stubble was showing. Kennedy on the other-hand had come tanned, confident and well-rested. Televisions viewers could see all this, while radio listeners didn’t have a clue.*
The result? Kennedy becomes the next US president.
One of the issues that Kennedy and Nixon clash over in their debates is education. Neither side disagrees about the problems. Their clash is over the solutions. Kennedy wants the Federal government to take charge of building schools and paying teachers salaries. Nixon, on the other hand, wants to transfer money to the states and have them decide how it should be allocated. He is concerned that federal funding will mean federal control of education, and that means less independence for teachers.
Personally I feel that both sides are missing the main point. Education isn’t just about integration, paying teachers, and competing with the Soviet Union. It’s about the children. Unfortunately, neither side seemed to give them much attention beyond pointing out the need to help those who are weakest.
I was in good company though. The lack of awareness of children and children’s needs is one of the many criticisms that John Hersey levels against the American education system in The Child Buyer, a pseudo-science fiction novel.
“Journalism allows its readers to witness history; fiction gives its readers an opportunity to live it”. (John Hersey)
John Richard Hersey (1914 – 1993) was an American writer and journalist, who was also one one of the earliest practitioners of New Journalism – a method of adapting storytelling techniques to non-fiction journalism. Hersey used this technique when writing Hiroshima, an account of the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack as told through the eyes of six survivors; the story is considered to be the finest piece of American journalism published in the twentieth century.
Hersey’s began his journalistic career in 1937, at age 23, when he was hired by Time after publishing an essay criticizing the magazine’s dismal quality. Two years later they transferred him to China to work as an editor.
During World War II, Hersey worked as a newsweekly correspondent. He covered the fighting in Europe and Asia, and published articles for both Time and Life magazines. During this period, he accompanied allied troops in their invasion of Sicily, survived four airplane crashes, and helped evacuate wounded soldiers from Guadalcanal, an act for which he was later commended.
After the war, Hersey wrote Hiroshima and two famous novels that established him as a national bestselling author:
Of Men and War – An account of war stories as told through the eyes of soldiers, instead of a war correspondent
The Wall – A story of the creation and destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. The book became a bestseller and won the National Jewish Book Award.
With his reputation established, Hersey was then able to turn his attention to what really mattered – the American school system. In 1954, he wrote an article for Life magazine about the dullness of grammar school readers: "Why Do Students Bog Down on First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading". That article later served as the inspiration for Doctor Seuss’ The Cat in The Hat.
He then later satirized the school system in The Child Buyer, a book that tells the story of an attempt to buy a child for the purpose of engineering super-intelligent persons – in the name of national defense.
“All’s fair in love, war, and free enterprise”. (John Hersey, The Child Buyer)
The Child Buyer provides the minutes from a State Senate Standing Committee on Education, Welfare and Public Morality. The committee had gathered to hear testimony regarding an attempt by a representative of the United Lymphomiloid Company, Wissey Jones, to purchase a child in the town of Pequot for a highly classified defense project.
The committee is comprised of three senators: The sympathetic Senator Manning who is running for reelection and seems to actually care about people; the patriotic Senator Skypack who expects people to always ask themselves what they can do for America and never what America can do for them; and Senator Voyolko who is senile. The committee counsel is Mr. Broadbent who is in charge of conducting the investigation and introducing witnesses.
Barry Rudd is the 10 year old child Wissey Jones wants to purchase. Physically he is underdeveloped, but his mind, with an estimated IQ of 189, is something to marvel. He remembers everything he learns with an amazing level of detail, is constantly excited to discover new things, and has an academic mindset, which make him an ideal candidate for United Lymphomiloid.
Barry’s intelligence poses a huge challenge to his parents and the Pequot education system, neither of which are equipped to deal with gifted children. All the adults in Barry’s life either want to exploit his talents or wish he’d be more like everyone else, which would make him easier to handle. Jones’ purchase offer is a convenient way for making an ostensibly problem child go away. Unfortunately, his clumsy attempts to go about it bring him to the attention of State Senate Committee, and this provides us with 259 pages of their deliberations.
“A free country, only trouble is, it don’t always work that way. Under twenty-one, it ain’t always all that free.” (John Hersey, The Child Buyer)
For me this book was a huge challenge to finish. It took a very long time for me to be pulled in (40% on kindle), but once it happened, I couldn’t stop reading.
There are many reasons why I could classify this book as a disappointment. For starters, it is science fiction in name only. The author only exposes what will happen to Barry Rudd at the very end, and while monstrous, it is barely two pages long. Other issues, are the format. The committee minutes format means the book is entirely dialogue, and there are some characters who are particularly verbose, on the verge of being long-winded. It was a challenge to read through their segments.
However, setting these issues aside, most of the characters are well fleshed out and undergo serious development during the five days the committee gathers to hear testimonies (I was almost crying by the end of the book). The criticisms the book raises provide a fascinating window to the state of the American education system in the fifties. Finally, many of the issues raised are still very relevant today.
The last one in particular stood out for me. It’s one of the main reasons, I enjoy writing this series so much. In the Pequot township, teachers are seriously underpaid and expected to take with a smile whatever the system dishes out at them. No one really cares about the actual children. They’re commodities who need to pass through the system in order to become productive members of society. Advancing educational standards is only important if they can be leveraged to advance those in charge of applying them. Finally, gifted children are a hindrance that the school system is not equipped to deal with, and they are viewed as such. It’s a lot to take in.
All-in-all, I think the book was worth it in the end, but just barely. I recommend approaching this book with caution. It requires perseverance and a lot of patience. However, if you’re willing to take it slow, I think you’ll find yourself well-rewarded by the end.
*In 2016, a study was published disputing the claim that Kennedy won the first debate and the presidency because of the television viewers.