Monday, September 03, 2007

Abolishing Adolescence

Says the daddy of Alberta neo-cons; Ted Byfield.

One of those old-style teachers, who died in the early '50s, was Sir Richard Livingstone, a classics prof and educational philosopher.

Livingstone defined what he called "educable ages" of human beings.

We are most educable, he said, when we're very young, least educable in the teen years and early 20s, and become highly educable again as adults.

In effect, he was abolishing the whole concept of the teen-ager, the adolescent.

If nearly everybody at 12 or 13 joined the work force, they would in fact become part of the adult world.

Wait a minute weren't he and his neo-con pals the same ones that want to raise the age of sexual consent to 16. Decrying any sexual relations between teen agers and adults as child abuse and equating it with child porn. Yep they were.

And they are of course the same ones who want the age lowered, perhaps to 10, to be able to try teen-agers and children as Adults for crimes like murder. And we recently say how effective that was with the Stephen Truscott case.

Ted is the Pater Familas of the Byfield clan, whose influence is spread through out Canada's social conservative political lobbies.

Ted created the conservative weekly St. Johns Edmonton Report, which later became Alberta Report ,as part of a tax free religious charity associated with St. Johns Boys School. A school founded on the principle's of same sex education and spare the rod spoil the child.

At least one blogger noted this would be a return to the 19th Century use of child labour. Actually child labour in Canada was abolished through Factory Acts beginning in the late 19th Century. In Alberta child labour laws were not passed until 1917. And now child labour has returned in B.C. and Alberta.

And perhaps this is the real subtext of what Byfield is saying, since Alberta and B.C. are suffering from massive labour shortages.

Adolescence and the concept of the teen-ager began after WWI with the post war boom and the consumer culture created by Fordism. It became a mass cultural phenomena world wide after WWII. It is the result of the post war baby boom and concurrent development of post war industrialization. By the late fifties and early sixties, teen agers were in news first as juvenile delinquents, then as student rebels. The rise of the student movement and an anti-war culture, would result in the development of the New Left.

For the post Viet-Nam new right it became a simple formula; abolish adolescence and you abolish rebellion. And in their political agenda there are only children and adults.

In fact this idea of children between 12-21 being adults is a throw back to an much earlier age. The Medieval Age. Which is where Byfield remains to this day.

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Of all the books on childhood in the past, Philippe Aries's book Centuries of Childhood is probably the best known; one historian notes the frequency with which it is "cited as Holy Writ. " (18) Aries's central thesis is the opposite of mine: he argues that while the traditional child was happy because he was free to mix with many classes and ages, a special condition known as childhood was "invented" in the early modern period, resulting in a tyrannical concept of the family which destroyed friendship and sociability and deprived children of freedom, inflicting upon them for the first time the birch and the prison cell.

To prove this thesis Aries uses two main arguments. He first says that a separate concept of childhood was unknown in the early Middle Ages. "Medieval art until about the twelfth century did not know childhood or did not attempt to portray it" because artists were "unable to depict a child except as a man on a smaller scale."(19) Not only does this leave the art of antiquity in limbo, but it ignores voluminous evidence that medieval artists could, indeed, paint realistic children.(20) His etymological argument for a separate concept of childhood being unknown is also untenable.(21) In any case, the notion of the "invention of childhood" is so fuzzy that it is surprising that so many historians have recently picked it up.(22) His second argument, that the modern family restricts the child's freedom and increases the severity of punishment, runs counter to all the evidence.

The idea that adolescence was not recognized as a category of development separate from both childhood and adulthood is a more subtle distinction, but only just. The primary evidence concerning this outlook is the lack of any term for the modern-day word "adolescence." If they didn't have a word for it, they didn't comprehend it as a stage in life.

This argument also leaves something to be desired, especially when we remember that medieval people did not use the terms "feudalism" or "courtly love." And again, there is some evidence to refute the assumption. Inheritance laws set the age of majority at 21, expecting a certain level of maturity before entrusting a young individual with financial responsibility. And there was concern expressed for the "wild youth" of teenage apprentices and students; the mischief that youth can cause was frequently seen as a stage that people pass through on the way to becoming "sad and wise."

In towns and cities, children would grow to become the laborers and apprentices that made a craft business grow. And here, too, there are signs that society as a whole understood the value of children. For example, in medieval London, laws regarding the rights of orphans were careful to place a child with someone who could not benefit from his death.

Among the nobility, children would perpetuate the family name and increase the family's holdings through advancement in service to their liege lords and through advantageous marriages. Some of these unions were planned while the bride- and groom-to-be were still in the cradle.

"The psychodynamics of mystics, their symbol formations and their actions are based on excessive early trauma. . . . There is evidence that medieval mystics
were deprived and also emotionally and sexually abused as children."

-- Childhood and Fantasies of Medieval Mystics, Dr. Ralph Frenken

". . . Frenken's mystics each attempted to achieve their desired transcendent knowledge, albeit through perverse methods resulting from their horrid childhoods -- they were merely attempting to create psychic homeostasis."

"The production of pain, bleeding, religious symbol scarification, self-flagellation
and wearing body-injuring garments all served the mystics' purpose of achieving unity with the divine as a substitute for childhood psychic abuse, of merging with an idealized Mother and as a defense against normal sexual emotions."

"Whatever ecstasy they may have achieved was short­lived because it
never addressed a resolution of childhood trauma."

-- Jerrold Atlas, Ph.D.

The idea of childhood is disappearing.

Writing a new preface three years ago for the re-released version of the book, Postman, who teaches media and political culture at New York University, confessed that, "sad to say," he saw little to change in his 1982 text. "What was happening then is happening now. Only worse."

In Postman's view, the postmodern culture is propelling us back to a time not altogether different from the Middle Ages, a time before literacy, a time before childhood had taken hold as an idea. Obviously, there were children in medieval times, but no real childhood, he says, because there was no distinction between what adults and children knew.

Postman's book recalls the coarse village festivals depicted in medieval paintings - men and women besotted with drink, groping one another with children all around them. It describes the feculent conditions and manners drawn from the writings of Erasmus and others in which adults and children shared open lives of lust and squalor.

"The absence of literacy, the absence of the idea of education, the absence of the idea of shame - these are the reasons why the idea of childhood did not exist in the medieval world," Postman writes.

Only after the development of the printing press, and of literacy, did childhood begin to emerge, he says. Despite pressures on children to work in the mines and factories of an industrial age, the need for literacy and education gradually became apparent, first among the elite, then among the masses. Childhood became defined as the time it took to nurture and transform a child into a civilized adult who could read and comprehend complex information. The view American settlers was that only gradually could children attain civility and adulthood through "literacy, education, reason, self-control and shame."

It was during that time, Postman notes, that public education flourished, that children began celebrating birthdays and that a popular culture especially for kids developed around games and songs. Postman places the high-water mark for childhood at between 1850 and 1950.

"Childhood was invented in the seventeenth century."

So begins chapter seven of Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. I highly recommend the entire book, but this chapter in and of itself deserves special consideration. Postman was a brilliant writer and social critic, rest his soul, and I wouldn't presume to improve on his presentation. What I can do is summarize and tantalize enough that you'll head out to the nearest library and pick up a copy of the book yourself. Or at least internalize and spread the meme.

Of course children existed prior to the seventeenth century, but that's not the same thing at all. Childhood is a social construction, a collective agreement to set aside some time between infancy and adulthood largely free of responsibilities that is enforced by behaviors, social norms, and laws. (What this time is for is a major question that we'll get to later.)

Hugh Cunningham has taken on a formidable challenge in this book: describing the history not only of the Western idea of childhood, but the actual experience of children over a span of nearly five hundred years.

The book first explores the evolution of ideas about childhood in the Western world. Beginning with a brief but lucid examination of the classical and medieval world, where the most important change in the notion of childhood came with the spread of Christianity, Cunningham turns to the period beginning about 1500. His aim here is to describe the rise of what he calls a "middle class ideology of childhood." This ideology has its origins in the thinking of a succession of figures, the first of whom was Erasmus. Erasmus's stress upon the importance of the father and of education--for boys, at any rate--was the first step in the creation of a distinctly modern vision of childhood. Interestingly, Cunningham argues that the Reformation's importance was in advancing the notion of the importance of education for Catholics and Protestants alike. Though he concedes that there were differences--the Puritan obsession with original sin and the Catholic elevation of the priest above the familial patriarch, for example--Cunningham prefers to stress continuities across the religious divide. John Locke, the next important contributor in Cunningham's view, was important for undermining the idea of original sin, and for encouraging the secularization of the western ideal of childhood. It was left for Rousseau to follow Locke's secular ideal to its logical conclusion: nature, rather than the Church, should be the director of a child's growth. These romantic ideals were immensely influential among educated Europeans, and were popularized still more after the publication of Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Mortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." This work, says Cunningham, "came to encapsulate what was thought of as a romantic attitude to childhood: that is, that childhood was the best part of life" (p. 74). And unlike Locke's own gendered notion of childhood, Wordsworth and Rousseau made no distinctions between boys and girls; children of both genders were "godlike, fit to be worshipped, and the embodiment of hope" (p. 78).

Of course these ideas were the product of elites, and until the nineteenth century rarely applied to any other children, as Cunningham recognizes. The rest of his book traces the ways in which this "middle class ideology" came to be applied to all children. In the early part of the period, Erasmian prescriptions had no place in the experience of the vast majority of children, who were trained from about the age of seven to take their place in the adult world of work. But beginning in the seventeenth century, education, sponsored by churches and lay charity, began to have a broader impact. Many of the free schools founded in English towns in the period, for example, followed, if only loosely, Lockean ideals. While their goal was usually to teach a useful trade, they also provided literacy skills and made the experience of schooling more common for the non-elite majority.

Industrialization, Cunningham argues, did little to alter the structure of the family, but it radically changed the experience of its members, as people moved from agriculture to industry. Children, accustomed to work in the fields, quite naturally took their places in the factory work force. Here the Romantic ideal began to have its effect upon the majority of children, as middle class reformers pressured Western states to limit the impact of industry upon children. A hallmark of the century after 1750, Cunningham tells us, was the dramatic increase in state intervention in child-related matters. Regulation imposed upon child labor was one feature of these policies. Eighteenth-century governments had deliberately encouraged the rapid introduction of children into the work force, teaching them trades, but by the mid-nineteenth century the goal was to exclude them from the shop floor. Most important of all was the introduction of compulsory schooling. Although feeble state efforts at requiring education had been underway since the early eighteenth century, it was not until the latter half of the nineteenth that school became a common experience for all.

While compulsory education reinforced the Romantic ideal of childhood, Cunningham points out that Western states had far more in mind than assuring fun and games for youth. Increasingly sophisticated economies required sophisticated skills. Schools served the interests of governments and their rulers: children pledged allegiance, saluted portraits of kaisers and kings, and learned about the benefits of the status quo. Moreover, the state's increased role in the lives of children--not simply through schooling, but also through public health programs and social work, both of which emerge simultaneously with the public school, "entailed an unprecedented degree of surveillance of the working-class population" (p. 168). Despite the utility of such policies for governments, there is no doubt but that the Romantic ideal of childhood dominated public action. Even science did more to serve the ideal than challenge it; pediatrics, a branch of medicine unknown much before the turn of the century, helped ensure a dramatic fall in infant mortality rates, a shift Cunningham emphasizes is of great importance.


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1 comment:

Matthew The Astrologer said...

Thank you for the very well-researched and thoughtful article. On my blog I ranted about how bad Ted is at citing his sources. Now that I've had a look at where his ideas come from... they don't get any prettier.

A nation hungry for the good old days cries out for a return to feudalism. Why didn't Dick Cheney think of this first? :)