Criticism — From the May 2013 issue

Our Town

How Roger Barker made Oskaloosa, Kansas, his laboratory

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Not long after moving to Oskaloosa, a town of 725 people in the hills of northeastern Kansas, Roger Barker, the new chair of the psychology department at the University of Kansas, approached a young couple who lived near him with a request: Might a group of researchers follow their seven-year-old son around for a day, documenting the boy’s every word and movement?

Jack Birch, a salesman at the town hardware store, and his wife, Joan, a clerk at the county courthouse, said yes, and on April 26, 1949, eight observers with timers and clipboards, working in half-hour shifts, assembled a minute-by-minute account of an ordinary day in the life of Raymond Birch.

Harper & Row published the report in 1951 as One Boy’s Day. An editor of The New York Times Magazine found the book interesting enough to pay Oskaloosa a visit. In an August 1951 article she rhapsodized about how Barker and his colleagues “brought child psychology out of the laboratory to study children in their natural habitat, much as a botanist goes into the fields to study flowers.” Townspeople knew the good that came from agricultural research stations, so they accepted “the idea that perhaps some day as much can be known about raising children as raising corn.”

For all but a few of the book’s 435 pages, Barker and his co-author, the psychologist Herbert F. Wright, offer nothing more than an unadorned ticktock narrative.

7:00. Mrs. Birch said with pleasant casualness, “Raymond wake up.” With a little more ur- gency in her voice she spoke again: “Son, are you going to school today?” 

7:01. Raymond picked up a sock and began tug- ging and pulling it on his left foot. As his mother watched him she said kiddingly, “Can’t you get your peepers open?” . . . He said plaintively, “Mommie,” and continued mumbling in an unintelligible way something about his undershirt.

7:07. Raymond turned to his dresser and rummaged around among the things on it until he obtained a candy Easter egg. He held up the candy and commanded, “Sit up, Honey, sit up.” The dog obeyed promptly and Raymond pushed the candy into her mouth.

7:08. He came out of the bathroom carrying a bottle of hair oil.

7:09. Mr. Birch patted Raymond on the back, then turned and started toward the kitchen. On his way to the kitchen, Mr. Birch called out, teasingly, “Well, let’s get on the stick, Bub . . .” Raymond said nothing, just went on combing his hair. 

An hour and a half — and some forty pages deeper — into Raymond’s day, we see a girl chase him on his way to school.

Raymond, looking a little sheepish . . . stopped right where he was, beside the bushes. He seemed reluctant to join the girls, yet appeared not to know quite what to do with himself since Susan had stopped chasing him. As he stood there, he picked a leaf off a bush, put it in his mouth, and nibbled on it.

In the evening, a researcher enters the Birches’ washroom as Raymond’s mother gives him a bath: “Raymond concentrated his attention on one toe of his left foot. He rubbed the soap back and forth, sawing away between his toes.”

The Birches gave the researchers seemingly unlimited access to their lives — a measure of how deeply Barker and his team of scientists, most of whom had moved to Oskaloosa within the previous two years, had insinuated themselves into the social fabric of the town. Barker, in the preface to One Boy’s Day, writes that the book “marks . . . a milestone in the degree of participation of a whole community in a scientific undertaking.” But the book was just the start. Barker hoped to map the lives of all 119 of Oskaloosa’s children — and eventually those of its adults as well. He wanted nothing less than a psychological portrait of an entire town.

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is the author of My Father’s Paradise, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography. This is his first article for Harper’s Magazine.

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