Thanks, Mr. Wizard – or, we used to value critical thinking…


Don Herbert died Tuesday.

While that name won’t ring a bell with a lot of folks, for a whole generation – hail, hail Boomers – he was a spirit guide to a world of discovery through science.

Don Herbert was Mr. Wizard.

In Watch Mr. Wizard, which was produced from 1951 to 1964…Herbert turned TV into an entertaining classroom. On a simple, workshop-like set, he demonstrated experiments using household items.

Watch Mr. Wizard won a Peabody Award – the most distinguished of television awards in many ways, since it’s given for both creativity and service to the public.

What made Herbert’s show so special and such a touchstone for Boomers?

It taught us how to be curious about the natural world and its processes. It showed us how to do science using simple household items. It insisted that the only irreplaceable piece of scientific gear was a kid’s mind.

The pace of the show was slow (think Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood with science!) but Herbert’s relaxed persona, his willingness to answer questions with questions, and his ability to prod the curiosity of his young “assistants” over the years modeled a pedagogy that many a science teacher would (or should) emulate. He made thinking critically about the world and how it works both fun and, in a weird, almost subversive way, he made school make sense. Don Herbert was first and foremost a teacher – the kind of teacher any Boomer kid – hell, any kid – wouldn’t have minded taking a class from.

I watched Mr. Wizard almost every Saturday afternoon from the time I was 6 or so (about 1958) until the show left the air in 1964. He taught me about wind currents, about chemical reactions, about energy created by fire and electricity and water.

He also taught me to ask questions and to be willing to do the leg work to get answers. He taught me that “getting it wrong” was just a step on the way to “getting it right.”

Like any great teacher, he made me want to be smart like him.

Thanks, Mr. Wizard….

14 replies »

  1. For me it was “Beyond 2000”, an Australian show in the 80s, that performed the same role. They sound as if they copied your Mr Wizard and then jazzed it up somewhat (with the astonishing technology of the 80s!!!!).

    They had me winding coke bottles full of water to see if they would empty faster, building beer-powered radios, salt crystals, ant farms … ah, the heady days 😉

  2. You can probably predict the question that’s coming here. Your generation benefited so tremendously from a show that encouraged you to think critically. When your gen grew up and became parents, it aggressively removed anything that might encourage critical thinking from the path of its children.

    Why did this happen? You’d think a generation would want to pass on the things it clearly values most.

  3. Not my parents. I was always encouraged to question authority and think critically.

    Because of that I am a ‘radical’ lefist and my high school teachers hated me, since I always challenged their assumptions instead on docilely accepting whatever mush they foisted onto me.

    If you go back through US grade school cirriculum, you will find that for the first half of the 20th century Critical Thinking was mandatory. See, they wanted the kids to be able to spot ‘enemy propaganda’ back during WWI and WWII.

    Almost the day after WWII ends Critical Thinking is expunged from US education so as to create a nation of unquestioning followers, be it for corporate consumerism, or a president that wants to start illegal and immoral wars for his political benefit.

    My kids, 3 and 5 already have critical thinking skills. They will be shunned in public school and considered radical and dangerous by the Department of Fatherland Security for simply asking questions.

    As Mr. Wizard, asking how things work today puts you on the terrorist watch list.

  4. Comrade – if the kids are 3 and 5, then they’re not Millennials and are instead part of a generation that should be better at critical thinking. Probably because you’re likely not of this parenting gen I’m talking about – my guess is that you’re somewhere between 28 and 46?

  5. Dear Comrade, may I make a suggestion? Have you thought about home-schooling your kids? It’s not just for right-wing religious nuts. It’s also for people who would like their kids to be able to think critically, not just pass an NCLB test. I worry about the future because these kids, who do not know how to think critically, who have been drugged-up with Ritilin to keep them from asking questions, will be in charge one day. I missed Mr. Wizard because I wasn’t born until 1965, but I’m sure I would have loved him and done all the fun experiments! Mr. Booth, thank you for the lovely tribute to him.

  6. I had watched Mr. Wizard for a year when my junior high school began what amounted to a Trivial Pursuits of science. I won. I went to the regionals. I won. Then, on TV in Boston, when only two of us remained, I failed to identify a pictured bird correctly (I’ll always hate the Boat-tailed Grackle). I won a transistor radio.

    For so many of us, Mr. Wizard taught us that the natural world had a fascination beyond mere knowledge. It led me to major in a science in college. I wrote about science, technology and the environment as a journalist. I got a master’s in environmental studies.

    It all began with watching Mr. Wizard. He presented us with demonstrations of behaviors that led to critical thinking.

    He’ll be missed by many in this age of instant gratification.

    Thanks, Jim.

  7. Like Comrade Rutherford, I too was taught by my parents (of the WWII Generation) to be critial and skeptical. During high school inthe early ’80s I was ostracized for refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. When I explained how the pledge came about, several others in my class opted out. Most of my generation were and are still, nothing more than mindless zombies owiung to their Reagan Youth upbringing.
    Just last week I was called an “Unrepentant Marxist” by a colleague. I am nothing of the sort. Of course I live in Texas so if you don’t have a “W” sicker and Jesus fish on your car, your the spawn of Satan.

  8. Sam,

    I’ll respond in two parts.

    Part of what happened to guys like Mr. Wizard – and to a lesser extent Capt. Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers – was “the Sesame Street effect.” Sesame Street turned learning for Xers into this orgy of quick cuts, one liners, and gimmicky presentations and its imitators (like Electric Company) continued that sort of experience as Xers got older. But Sesame Street wasn’t a Boomer creation – it was a response to what were perceived as cultural forces – forces you and I have lectured to literally hundreds of teachers and professors about….

    Nickelodeon’s 80’s presentation “Mr. Wizard’s World” used the older model effectively for a while, and my own sons benefited from it. But then the “Double Dare” crowd at Nick decided that MTV would be a better model for kid programming (to create feeder audiences, undoubtedly) than Mr. Wizard – and the show got relegated to godawful time slots (6 AM!) and made sillier and sillier with “stunt science” stuff (you can read examples over at 5E comments).

    You can blame Boomers if you want, but that raises a question – should TV/advertising execs be considered humans, a prerequisite to being Boomers…? Because the real issue here is the reduction of EVERYTHING in the culture to consumer goods for marketing – including education – another issue you and I have explored….

  9. anonymousse, I’d suggest a charter school or private school before home schooling. Most parents are ill equipped to teach even one subject to their children, never mind all of them. And careful selection of your child’s teachers (or even selecting specific public schools in a given district) can do wonders even in a public school setting that has to deal with NCLB.

    IMO, home schooling is about the worst education solution there is.

  10. We will enhance critical thinking skills in the schools when we spend as much money on the debate teams as we do on the football teams. If we could get American taxpayers to sit still long enough to look at the REAL statistics and find out that fewer than 20% of school athletic programs so much as break even, and that debate/forensics activities have more peer-reviewed scientific research showing their positive impact on critical thinking skills than anything else colleges and universities do, maybe we could make an impact. But it would require media (who profit from sports) to report it well enough to overcome University PR machines that simply parrot the school’s ranking’s in non-academically created systems like Consumer’s Digest and the Princeton review.

  11. We have been doing what’s called ‘un-schooling’, and we didn’t even know it. You basically just teach the kids about whatever they are doing at the time (todau I was replacing the brake pads on the mini-van, so they learned how disc brakes work. My 3 year old got it faster then the 5 year old!

    We started when they were young, by simply not speaking baby-gibberish at them, but using correct grammer. My wife and I had decided to home-school them, there are very good materials for non-extremist-christians (although they are 90% of homeschoolers). But out children pretty much demanded to go to school.

    Our local elementary school is actually very good, so we wanted the older one to go there last year. But the school board had some made-up rule that they had to be 5 before they could start. They pretty rudely told us to get lost. So our girls went to a Montesorri school.

    Let me say Montesorri schools are worth every penny!!! It is organized un-schooling. The kids get to do whatever they want and the teacher gives them a lesson on that. then they can repeat that excercise as often as they want until they feel like moving on.

    My wife and I can not even begin to understand how there are kids that are dumber than a bag of jello at age 7.

  12. I remember “Mr. Wizaard” being on TV. But at the time it aired in California, I was already outside on a beautiful Saturday having a great time with my friends, riding bikes or, in the late 50’s early 60’s, flying the first frisbees and inventing and riding the first “skateboards.” My parents supported my activities and encouraged them. I did my share of “engineering” and “science” too, being fascinated eith biology (oceanography, paelontology and mechanics) and I don’t mean cars. These tinkering sessions and bouts of curiosity led me into my current occupation as an engineering geologist, working on protecting our environment. I also designed and built my own catamaran which will be patented and I am working on an infinite gradient geared transmission for bicycles and an electric aircraft which I start testing this year. The upshot is it isn’t programming, I think it is the innate curiousity of the child and involved, cultivating parents that is paramount.

  13. I was in high school when George Bush Sr bribed the Iranian ‘terrorists’ to hold the hostages for several months more than they had to, in order to help him rig the 1980 election to get Reagan into the White House.

    I used to irritate my Social Studies teacher. He had a shrine for the hostages and had the number of days they had been held up in the corner of the blackboard.

    I would ask questions like:

    “What did the US do to make them so angry that they attacked our embassy and took the hostages?”


    “Why did the US overthrow the democratically elected government back in the ’50s and installed and supported a ruthless dictator for over 20 years?”


    “Why won’t congress do something about the Bush administration’s blatant violations of the Constitution?” (Bush was the president from 1980 to 1992, using Reagan as a prop)

    He did NOT like me at all.