Books: Hidden Figures

I don’t remember a lot of details of watching the first moon landing, in July 1969. Mostly I remember being bored with how long it took before they finally opened the door of the lunar module. I don’t actually know if my memories of scenes from Mission Control are from that night, or from movies I’ve seen since then. But my impression of Mission Control is of a bunch of men sitting at banks of computers.

White men, in white shirts, figuring out whatever needed to be figured out to get three men to the moon and back. It never occurred to me, until reading Hidden Figures recently, that a lot of the work behind the scenes had been done by black women.

I had always assumed that the engineers in the space program did their own calculations, whether on a computer or a slide rule. I found it surprising to find out that for two decades, engineers at NASA (and its predecessor NACA) had been handing off the work of doing the actual calculations to a group of women “computers” (i.e. people who did computations).

I found the book fascinating, both for the story of how these women overcame so many obstacles to do this work which contributed to the development of the  space program, and for the broader historical perspective, showing both the cultural biases at work in society and the people who worked to change all that.

There are probably many people who have seen the movie Hidden Figures, and have no plans to read the book it was based on. But this review of the movie adaptation points out some of its weaknesses, compared to the book. “Unlike the book, the film tells a straightforward, simplistic story.” Of course, there are some people who prefer that. While most of the reader reviews on amazon.com are very positive, a few complain about how much time the book spends on the history of the period, rather than just telling the women’s inspiring story.

For myself, I was quite pleased to realize that the book was non-fiction, as compared with the movie which is fictionalized (creating composite characters to represent the lives and actions of multiple people, for instance). I’m sure the movie is inspiring, and better to get its version of history than none at all. But I prefer to know I’m getting the real story, not one the movie producer thought would be more interesting to people with shorter attention spans.

But how can you understand these women’s stories without knowing the historical background? I grew up knowing I would go to college – it appeared to me neither as an opportunity nor an obligation, just something taken for granted by everyone. I had both the academic ability and my father’s commitment to pay the amount over what student loans would cover (after I got the maximum loans allowed). So of course I would go to college – even if I wasn’t sure what I would do with my education.

I appreciate the education I got in college, both inside the classroom and outside, especially the grounding in my Christian faith (I attended a Christian college) and how to view all of life from the perspective of God’s eternal truths. But as a college graduate, sometimes struggling to pay student loans while working at jobs that used little of my post-secondary education, I came to question why college was pushed the way it was.

Reading Hidden Figures helps me understand better the attitude of those who felt so strongly that my sister and I should achieve a college education. In earlier decades, we would have had far more limited options in life. It would have been assumed that we would be dependent on our husbands, and if death or divorce left us as single mothers, we would have struggled to find a way to make ends meet.

I knew all this, of course, but reading Hidden Figures bring to life the attitudes and struggles of those decades. Here are young women who long to study advanced mathematics and to go as far as their abilities will take them. Yet prejudice against both their gender and the color of their skin limits where they can go to school and what kinds of jobs they can get. And when they get jobs doing mathematics, they are given lesser job titles (and of course lesser pay) than men with the same skills.

Of course they champion the cause of other women, regardless of racial or ethnic background, to have greater educational and career opportunities. College was the way out of poverty, a way to follow their dreams, and to be in a place to offer the same opportunities to their children.

But would they have wanted that enthusiasm for educational and career opportunity to produce disdain for people who do not desire the same kind of opportunities? There are women who have a good education and could get a job if they needed to support the family, but who choose to set aside career in order to be stay-at-home moms. There are men and women who prefer jobs working with their hands, or who work in offices but have no desire to get promoted into management positions.

I work in higher education myself (as a “student system administrator,” which is a job I have trouble describing to anyone not familiar with student information systems), but I sometimes struggle with the assumption that the more people who go to college, the better. It may be true that people with a college degree earn more than those without, but if somehow it came to be that everyone went to college, there would still be those who made less money, because there will always be some jobs that require less skill than others.

That’s getting far afield from a discussion of Hidden Figures, but those are the thoughts that keep going through my mind as I reflect on the social issues presented in the book. It was wrong to assume that women did not have the ability to be good engineers, or that the color of people’s skin had anything to do with their intelligence. Politicians who wanted to close public schools rather than allow racial integration were not working in the best interests of the students, black or white.

But the assumption that every student should go to college is not in the best interests of everyone either. I’m not saying this book suggests that it is – it is about allowing opportunities for everyone. But high schools today are often measured by the percent of their students that go on to college, to the detriment of programs that teach vocational skills, as well as the arts and music.

I’m sure there are no easy solutions to the very complex issues involved in education, especially in a time of shrinking budgets. I hope that reading a book like Hidden Figures – or seeing the movie – inspires people to work, in whatever small ways they can, toward the goal of greater opportunities for everyone to achieve their potential.

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