(about trash, treasures, history, cursive writing, and social conditioning)
As I shoveled a pile of hundred-year-old debris from a hidden area behind a third-floor tower room wall in our house, I picked up a shovelful with something interesting in it. It turned out to be the fifth-grade cursive writing workbook of Milo McAuley, one of the children in the first family to live in our house, which is just off Goodale Park.
His workbook is a treasure, an artifact of daily life in our house from well over a century ago. In 1894, Milo’s fifth grade year, Goodale Park’s “new” west lake (which obviously no longer exists) would have been well established. Milo would have seen its construction from his front porch starting when he was in third grade.
I know this about Goodale Park because of the History section of this website, naturally. And I know about Milo McAuley because of his great-grandniece, Sarah, who appeared at our door a few years ago, introducing herself as the great-great-granddaughter of J.A. McAuley, the original owner of our house (and Milo’s dad, of course).
We recently arranged for Sarah to come back to visit, and to get Milo’s cursive workbook so she could add it to her family memorabilia. After we set a date, it occurred to me that I had never opened the workbook. It was pretty sooty and seemed quite fragile. But realizing that this was my last chance, I lifted the cover, revealing surprisingly clean, intact inner pages. And contained within those pages was yet another treasure.
The workbook assignments started innocently enough, with words to copy like “mills”, “million”, “billion”, and “balls”.
But as I turned the pages, the assignments quickly changed to interesting phrases that Milo and his classmates repeatedly wrote on line after line of their workbooks. Social messages began to be presented – aphorisms like: “Always speak the truth”, “Justice overtakes wrong”, and “Idleness induces crime”.
This was not merely about improving Milo’s handwriting; it was about shaping attitudes and embedding particular societal values in the next generation of citizens. The cursive workbook was a social conditioning tool.
And as I looked more closely, I realized that there were subtler phrases on each page. They were smaller in print, unrelated to the cursive practice lessons. Phrases like, “Dare to do right”, “Honor and obey thy parents”, the intriguing “Jest not with religion”, and the productivity-focused “Go to the ant, thou sluggard” (implying the well-known [at that time] ending, “…consider its ways and be wise.”) More social conditioning.
Milo’s workbook aphorisms remind me of the repetitive conditioning message of the bad aliens in the movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (“The greatest joy is the joy of duty! Work! Work! Work!”), and the Christmas elves’ brainwashing labor message in the work song lyrics of the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer classic (“We work hard all day, but our work is play…”). These aphorisms also remind me of other social conditioning that we face every day, mainly in media advertising (like “Things go better with Coke”), but sometimes in person. One of the deli guys at our Giant Eagle engages in his own version of social conditioning. He shaves a sample slice of turkey, presents it to me to approve the thickness, and then offers it to me to eat, instructing me, “Enjoy that!” It annoys me, kind of like when people preface a story or anecdote by saying, ”You’ll think this is funny.”
I’m also reminded of “personal social conditioning”, often called “affirmations”. Jeff comes to mind — a financial services sales guy I once knew. He placed Post-its around his bathroom mirror with encouraging statements like “I am successful!” “I am an effective and powerful sales person.” “Everything is possible.” “I am already wealthy and prosperous.” “I will see failure as only a signpost on my road to success.”
You might have seen similar messages during the heyday of Turk Pipkin’s “Magnetic Affirmations”. I gave some to my brother-in-law for Christmas a few years ago, including these, still on his fridge:
Many people live by these affirmations, while others nearly soil themselves with laughter while reading them, disbelieving that anyone could take the affirmations seriously. These other people then created the “Demotivators” (available at www.Despair.com), and created other messages that mock social conditioning, like this sign in the Pick Me Up Café, near our son’s apartment in Chicago.
These mocking messages attempt to awaken us from our mindless acceptance of these prompts. But as much as some of us might think we are not affected by them, there are many ways in which our behavior is shaped by messages outside us, whether they are self-imposed, directed by social forces, or accidental. They seep into our consciousness and we integrate them. Words have a real effect on our attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors.
A classic example is the “Rosenthal Effect”. In the original study, elementary school teachers were told that a test predicted certain students (who were actually randomly chosen) were about to experience a dramatic growth in their IQ. As the children’s progress was followed over the next two years, Rosenthal discovered that the teachers’ expectations and subsequent words of encouragement really did lead to better performance, and this effect has been replicated with other groups of children in similar studies.
Non-verbal messages affect us too. If someone touches us on the forearm during conversation, we’re more inclined to like them. If we touch a product, we’re more inclined to buy it. The messages that affect us are sometimes unconscious, sometimes inflicted, and sometimes self-imposed.
The final aphorism in Milo’s workbook was perhaps the most challenging social message: “Let your last page be best.” It’s about producing an awesome capstone performance, making great final impression, or seeking perfection in penmanship. A daunting expectation, whether for Milo’s cursive workbook, or for his life.
We do know that Milo became a productive and upstanding Columbus citizen, remaining here even after all of his other family members moved away. He even spent his last few moments of life walking around Goodale Park. I like to imagine that he picked up some trash along the way on that last stroll.
The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver