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The Modern Construction of Childhood and the Paradox of Modernity – Zhao

April 26, 2013

Ooooh I like this one… Guoping Zhao observes that:

Since the publication of Ariès’ (1962) historical monograph Centuries of Childhood, it has been widely recognized (although with contestation) that the concept of childhood is socially constructed, rather than a merely ‘‘universal biological stage in the life course’’ (Shanahan 2007, p. 411). It may be universal and biological that every child goes through a period of immaturity, but ‘‘the ways in which the immaturity is conceived and articulated,’’ the ‘‘specific sets of ideas and philosophies, attitudes and practices’’ to define the ‘‘nature of childhood’’ (James and Prout 2007, p. 1) are all cultural and historical. As a social construct, childhood is often a reflection of the constructors rather than a reflection of children themselves (Synnott 1983). It is a reflection of the specific social, political, and cultural purposes of the unique time and space.” (p.241)

Zhao continues: “Ariès (1962) suggests that in many aspects of children’s lives, including pastimes, dress, and work, there was little social distinction between children and adults until the beginning of the 1700s. During the modern era, since the late seventeenth century, a new attitude toward childhood began to manifest itself, ‘‘so much so that the eighteenth century has been claimed as a ‘new world’ for them’’ (Hendrick 1997). The new sentiment of childhood saw children as different from adults, needing to be separated and protected from the adult world. Multiple constructs of childhood emerged in this climate, and studies have shown the different social, cultural, economic, and political purposes they serve at different times (e.g., James and Prout 2007). What remains unclear though is how the modern construction of childhood is part of the cultural project of the modern subject. In light of the modern and postmodern critique of the modern subject, it seems unfortunate that little attention is paid to the intriguing ambiguities and difficulties of the construction of childhood for the making of the modern subject.

The modern subject, as constructed by Descartes and Kant, is one whose rational mind anchors objective truth and whose cognition and free will impose laws on the universe. The modern construction of subject is centered on his autonomy and agency. However, as Wagner (1994) remarks, many have noticed the ‘‘self-cancellation’’ tendency embedded in the construction of the modern subject. Foucault and others also argue that disciplining, oppressing, and dominating of the individual is part of the project of the modern subject. There are theoretical ambiguities and historical and political developments in the project of the modern subject that make the subject’s agency and autonomy hard to achieve, thus it seems to embody the twin missions of modernity: the simultaneous empowerment and domination of the subject. Would the same problem occur in the construction of childhood? If agency and autonomy are so central in the construction of the modern subject, is it still so in the construction of childhood? How are the paradoxes of the modern subject manifested in the construction of childhood?

It will become clear in my analysis that, contrary to the construction of the modern subject, agency and autonomy is starkly lacking, either deliberately denied or inadvertently undermined, in the constructions of childhood. Children are mostly constructed as lacking agency, and these constructions have functioned to keep children marginalized and dominated. On the other hand, no matter how childhood is constructed, we cannot deny that the adult carries the memories and experiences of his/her childhood; further, it cannot be denied that the experiences s/he has as a child have a profound effect on what kind of subject s/he emerges to be, thus the child is also the self. Childhood is that from which the subject emerges. From this perspective, the construction of childhood is part of the making of the modern subject. If there is contradiction between the construction of the modern subject and the construction of childhood, we have to ask, ‘‘How are we to get from one to the other?’’ And if the construction of childhood is indeed part of the project of the modern subject, we have to further ask, ‘‘What purpose does the construction of childhood serve for the modern subject?’’ To fully understand the extent and the nature of the difficulty of the modern subject, to understand how the project of the modern subject has compromised the self and the other, it is important to understand more fully what is entailed in the construction of childhood. The study of the modern subject is incomplete unless the process of the making of the modern subject is investigated.” (p.242)

Note that the five constructions of childhood Zhao discusses are (in the author’s words):

“Childhood as a Moment of Innocence and Purity”
“The first, or perhaps the most prominent construct of childhood since Enlightenment, is the concept of childhood as a moment of purity and innocence (Heywood 2001).” (p.243)

“Childhood as a Period of Lacking, but with Naturally Unfolding Potential for, Rational Power”
i.e. “childhood as a period of lacking, but with natural unfolding potential for, rational power.” (p.245)

“Childhood as the Primitive Stage of Human Evolution”
“If tensions and inconsistencies have plagued the above modern constructions of childhood, the construction of childhood as the primitive stage of human evolution is void of such ambiguity. This construct directly indicates the need to control and to subdue children, for the supposed moral purpose of helping them in their path to ‘‘civilization.’’ This construct of childhood in modern history is parallel in some ways to the constructions of people of color, which played a key role in delineating and justifying oppressive historical practices on these ‘‘other’’ populations.” (p.248)

“Childhood as a Time for Redemption: Saving the Child from His/Her Sinful Nature”
“Closely akin to the notion of ‘‘child as the primitive’’ as described above is the construct of childhood as period of redemption where children must be saved from their sin. Stemming from the notion of original sin in Christian doctrine, this construct uses different language than the language of the other three, but it shares much of the same attitude toward childhood. Some may argue that this is a premodern construction instead of a modern one, but if we see the underlying continuity between Christianity and modernity, as demonstrated by reformation and Protestantism, we cannot but acknowledge that to a certain degree some forms of Christianity are part of modernity, despite embedded paradoxes. Not only in terms of the historical period of the construction, but also the shared ethos that children must be saved (either from the corrupted world, from their own incompetence and irrationality, or from their ‘‘savagery’’), this construct is clearly a modern one. The ‘‘pathologizing and curing ethos of modernity’’ (Baker 1998, p. 159) penetrates the modern conceptualization of childhood and is most notably manifested in this construct.” (p.250)

“Childhood as a Period of Active Growth”
“There is one construct in modern time that has indeed, at least theoretically, acknowledged or even underscored children’s agency: the progressive/constructivist constructions of childhood as a period of active growth. Around the turn of last century, Dewey (1897), the American philosopher and educator, announced in ‘‘My Pedagogical Creed’’ that ‘‘To prepare [the child] for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities.’’ In Dewey’s (1956/1899, pp. 47–48) view, children were naturally curious and had interest ‘‘in conversation, …in inquiry,…in making things, or construction; and in artistic expression.’’ They had the natural resources ‘‘upon which depends the active growth of the child’’. He claimed that education must start from where the child was, embrace his present, ‘‘see [the child’s present] as something fluent, embryonic, vital’’ (1902, p. 11). In this view, education becomes a process of ‘‘continuous reconstruction, moving from the child’s present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth’’ (1902, p. 11). A few decades later, the Swiss psychologist, Piaget, articulated a theory on the active role children play in their interaction with the world. Piaget’s cognitive development theory attempted to define the stages through which children’s active adjusting to and interacting with the world leads to the establishment of their mature mental structures. These theories and approaches, along with Rousseau’s ‘‘elevated’’ view of children, are the main sources of the so-called child-centered movement, which is hailed the core of the liberal democratic education through which the autonomous, independent, and capable of self-realization citizens are produced. The ‘‘celebratory air’’ (Baker 1998, p. 155) surrounding the child-centered movement is pervasive. For many, this construct of childhood [-p.253] is distinguished from all other constructions that undermine children’s agency and thus represents a contrast case in modern time. However, many have also argued that the child centered movement has failed to nurture children’s agency and has only became an instrument of more effective social control.” (pp.252-253)

“Most of the modern constructions of childhood have constructed children in the category of the other. Children are consigned with other groups of ‘‘deficiency’’ for whom different treatment is warranted.” (p.254)

Ref: Guoping Zhao (2011) The Modern Construction of Childhood: What Does It Do to the Paradox of Modernity?  Studies in Philosophy and Education 30(3)May:241–256

Abstract: “The examination of the modern construction of subject is not over yet. Although many thinkers have exhausted its conceptual ambiguities and practical consequences, its impact is far from fully understood without an analysis of the construction of childhood for the future subject. In this essay, I problematize five constructions of childhood that emerged in the modern time and scrutinize the impasses of logic or conceptual ambiguities within, along with the practical consequences thereof. I explore how the modern construction of childhood is problematic in and of itself, as well as the light it sheds on the deeply embedded ambiguities and aporia (Wagner in A sociology of modernity: liberty and discipline. Routledge, New York 1994; Zhao in Educ Theory 57(1):75–88 2007) in the construction of the modern subject. This paper will untangle the problems associated with each of these constructs and their respective implications for the making of the modern subject.”

NOTE: Zhao also explains that: “By ‘‘childhood,’’ I intend to cover the whole range of age-groups, from infancy to adolescence. I understand that some of the issues/problems are more pertinent to some agegroups than to others, but essentially, the whole time period from when the child is born to when s/he enters adulthood is the preparing period in modernity where the modern subject is made. It is the life history of the modern subject.” (p.243)

Reference (among others) is to: Ariès, P. (1962). Centuries of childhood. New York: Vintage Books.

Hendrick, H. (1997). Constructions and reconstructions of British childhood: An interpretive survey, 1800 to the present. In A. James & A. Prout (Eds.), Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in a sociological study of children (2nd ed., pp. 33–60). London: Falmer Press.

James, A., & Prout, A. (2007). Introduction. In A. James & A. Prout (Eds.), Constructing and reconstructing childhood: Contemporary issues in the sociological study of children (2nd ed., pp. 1–6). London: Falmer Press.

Shanahan, S. (2007). Lost and found: The sociological ambivalence toward childhood. Annual Review of Sociology, 33(1), 407–428.


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