Are children raised by nations?

My task for class tomorrow is to lead a discussion on the relationship between the “nation” and the child, and so I will begin that discussion in this post. After reading Stearns book “Childhood in World History” I walked away with two major conclusions, and many minor ones.

Although I already suspected this, I concluded that the nation (meaning, for the most part, the government) has an incredible influence on the concept of childhood within its borders. Stearns outlines several shifts in global history that heavily impacted childhood across the globe, and I think that governments were responsible for many of these shifts. Industrialization, for instance, was the reason that in the 19th Century  children began working jobs just like adults, and industrialization was strongly supported by governments.  So too were further technological advancements in mechanization, which resulted in machines displacing children from the work place. And so childhood shifted yet again to emphasize school rather than labor. Governments had a huge role ushering in this new age of childhood that focused on schooling. Japan created a mandatory education system by the turn of the 20th Century. The Japanese government believed that their population would be of no value if it was illiterate, therefore the future wealth of the country depended on the education of children. Governments also sought to control how adults conducted “parenting,” especially because these cultures believe in the innocence of children at birth. The corruption of a child comes from ill-treatment at the hands of adult and bad societal influences.

My second conclusion is this: because of the influence a government has on childhood within a nation, it is only logical that the concept of childhood differs from country to country. In some cases, like amongst Western countries, these differences may be slight, however I am certain they exist. This ties back to readings from last week that highlighted geography as a key determinant of childhood. Each government, backed by cultural traditions, has tried to maintain some aspects of their traditional way of life or their ideological thinking that they believe is important for society to keep, and these cultural nuances are different everywhere. For the Soviet Union, they wanted to stress Marxism in the classrooms and instill a sense of duty towards the collective good, meaning the state. China, Japan and the Soviet Union all, to a certain degree, stressed a sense of loyalty or duty to the state, however in Japan it was more in line with nationalism than with Communist ideology.

The role of the state with regards to the development of childhood should not be overlooked; in fact, I think the answers to many “whys?” and “hows?” can be found by looking towards the nation.

Stearns on Education

Education is a major theme dispersed throughout Stearns full length book, Childhood in World History. Though mentioned sporadically through different sections of his book, I think what Stearns is trying to get at with education boils down to three main chronological themes. Firstly, how religion sparked the rise of importance of education. Secondly, the idea that children are the future led to the shift of children moving from the workplace into the classroom. Thirdly, stemming from the previous two revelations, a newfound obligation was born for parents to promote academic achievement and thus provide a solid, well-rounded education for their children.

Religion and Education

In Stearns chapter regarding childhood in the classical civilizations, he brings up how religion, Confucianism in specific, began to place an emphasis on education. At the time education was accessible largely by the upper class rather than the lower class, though in some special cases certain talented boys or girls may have received training from “an upper-class sponsor.” Regardless of class, Confucianism made it “clear that moral as well as academic instruction was essential.”

World religions began to push for a more formal religious education. This religious “surge,” as Stearns calls it, was unprecedented. The result was “a redefinition of what education was about” and “an impulse to spread elements of education more widely that had been the case in the classical centuries.” World religions attempted to bridge the gap between children and their spirituality while simultaneously promoting literacy and the importance of education.

From the Workplace to the Classroom

Stearns identifies three fundamental changes that have contributed to what we now know as modern childhood. His first and most essential change “involves the conversion of childhood from work to schooling.” In earlier western societies that were more agriculturally centered, the child was looked at to work and help provide for his or her family. Children receiving an education began to gain increasing value. A proper and well-rounded education was deemed necessary in order to be a positive contributor to society. Children were no longer children; they were future adults. They were viewed as the future. “The child is the object of state upbringing.” The amount of children attending school all across the globe skyrocketed. Not only were children going to school, but they were going to school longer, through high school and even college. “This was a real conversion: childhood now meant schooling, above all.”

A Parent’s Obligation

As the role of education changed and gained increasing prominence, the natural responsibilities of being a parent changed as well. Education evolved from being a luxury enjoyed by the upper-class to a universally acknowledged necessity. Slowly but surely, “growing numbers of middle- and even lower-middle-class parents began to send children to at least a year or two of secondary school.” In the West, the education of females became more common due to the notion that, “in a modern society, mothers must be educated in order to raise their children properly.” As children began to be looked at as the keys to the future rather than simple emotionless objects, education became a fundamental and essential part of life.



Escaping the “Adult Gaze”

Maynes, Mintz, and Stearns

The first three readings seem to collectively address how contemporary society has been able to shape how childhood and its’ history is looked at. Maynes begins emphasizing the importance of first-hand life stories and accounts in the history of childhood (and in her case women, too). So few sources actually come from children that it leaves their stories up to be subjectively told. Maynes then leads nicely into the Mintz reading by describing how the forming of one’s identity is “rooted” in childhood. In one of the most eye-opening passages of the three articles, Maynes quotes Kath Weston in regards to gender on page 21:”Talk to someone in the United States about gender for more than twenty minutes and you’re likely to walk away with a childhood story.” This quote complements the Mintz reading nicely because Mintz essentially compares and contrasts age and gender as categories of history. What is masculine or feminine? What should a child’s responsibilities entail at a certain age? The answers to these questions are culturally and socially constructed and defined–simply unnatural as Mintz argues. Stearns finally delves into one of these norms that have been built up by society over the years–“the innocent child” and the idea that all children should be happy. Is this notion of happiness the lone and most construed aspect of childhood? No; Stearns concludes that parents being morally obligated to make their child’s childhood one of happiness is “only one among many factors shaping childhood in recent decades, and a challenge for further analysis is to figure out how it interacts with other influences.” Most of said influences being formed not by the children of the time period, but by the culture engulfing them.

Wilson and Pascoe

Wilson and Pascoe set out to critique the past historiography on children and childhood. Wilson specifically dealing with Philippe Aries and Pascoe centering on the more recent work on the children of Australia. The biggest problem Wilson has with Aries is his “present centeredness” approach, “the condition of viewing the past exclusively from the point of view of the present.” Through all his scrutiny, Wilson does not condemn Aries, but simply states that his argument is not false, but falsely conceived. After all, Wilson and Pascoe seem to agree, Aries book was essentially the first stage in the study of a new field. Wilson’s views on Aries’ “present-centeredness” poses a question. Isn’t every single human being naturally present-centered in some capacity? I understand where Wilson is coming from, but no matter what he writes, he did in fact write in the present.

Pascoe has different causes for concern with the historiography of children. He mentions the lack of sources authored by children themselves; a theme eminent throughout our entire week’s readings. He also describes the tendency amongst adult authors to romanticize children, and even get sentimental in their writing. All adults, historians included, tend to look back on childhood happily, and it hinders their writing. What solution, if any, does Pascoe recommend? He proposes “that we can enrich our historical research by borrowing insights from other disciplines,” chiefly material culture, archaeology, folklore, geography, and oral history. Pascoe writes my favorite quote in the reading when stating the utilization of these outside, yet similar, disciplines will lead to “the recovery of children from the scrapheap of the past.”

Davin and Rhodes

Davin and Rhodes provide a nice conclusion for this week’s readings. They both discuss useful sources for the study of childhood, but each author emphasizes a different variety. Davin delves into concrete sources–four in specific. These sources are school records, voices of authority (the privileged), voices of the working class, and her “jigsaw strategy.” Her jigsaw strategy kind of ties in with the Pascoe reading in that the jigsaw strategy pieces together clues from different sources, casting “a wide net.” This allows for the “steady accumulation of snippets, anecdotes, references, and examples; the piling up of details, which allows closer understanding.”

Rhodes is similar in that she emphasizes the importance of examining all varieties of sources. The difference is that for Rhodes, the sources she is referring to are experiences. Like many of the authors we we have just read, Rhodes believes that the history of childhood and the role of children in society are “too often defined by perceptions of adults.” She proposes that we, as historians, “explore the range of experiences and environments in which the child operated and engaged with in the adult world.” What I found most interesting is Rhodes’ opinions on photographs as sources. Though she admits their importance, one cannot rely that heavily on them because they are often under “adult gaze.” Photos are rarely, if at all, taken by children themselves, which reinforces the fact that the history of childhood is too often seen through the eyes of adults. I do believe that Rhodes is on to something, but I also believe studying experiences has its’ limitations. I’m sure that one would be able to find some first hand accounts, but wouldn’t that pool of sources be fairly limited? Even when analyzing these first hand accounts, wouldn’t many of the risks associated with other more subjective sources still remain? A blend between the strategies presented by both Davin and Rhodes–and all of the seven authors for that matter–is what is necessary to have any shot at recovering the history of childhood.