BY SAMUEL HUGHES  

 

 

SIDEBAR:
A Child’s Garden of Scholarship
Excerpts from
Beyond the Century
of the Child

 

Dr. Michael Zuckerman C’61, professor of history, is sitting in my office, talking with gentle urgency about the phenomenon known as childhood.

“I’ve always, simply as a student of culture, been interested in childhood,” he is saying. “Because childhood is such an extraordinary prism for everything going on in the culture.”

Zuckerman has a unique take on the subject, and not because he is himself a father of five. Having dissected Dr. Benjamin Spock and his Baby and Child Care in a 1993 profile titled “Dr. Spock: The Confidence Man,” he has just co-edited a book of essays with Dutch psychologist Willem Koops, titled Beyond The Century of the Child: Crossroads of Cultural History and Developmental Psychology, to be published this fall by the University of Pennsylvania Press. And as he notes in his summing-up essay—“The Millennium of Childhood That Stretches Before Us”—“A disturbingly large company of our authors … remain persuaded that something has gone awry in relations between the young and their elders.

“We sense, dimly but disturbingly, that we have conceded too much to our children,” he adds. “They become increasingly the bearers of our civilized discontents, because we have allotted to them what we now think we want, which isn’t civilization after all.”

The book’s intellectual forebear is The Century of the Child, an international bestseller written in 1900 by a Swede named Ellen Key. It argued, with a sort of Nietzschean fervor, that the world’s children should be the “central work of society” in the century just dawning.

Though Key herself “never thought her century of the child a plausible prospect,” notes Zuckerman, it turned out to have more resonance than she would have imagined. And so, a few years ago, he responded to Koops’ invitation to examine “whether we had actually enjoyed (or suffered) such a century,” and to see “what the evidence of the century past portended of the century to come.”

The essays they have gathered are pretty evenly balanced between historians and developmental psychologists—the “two great domains of scholarly inquiry” devoted to the study of childhood. For some, the point of departure is Philippe Ari╦s’ 1962 book, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life, which maintained that the very concept of childhood—with all its implications of innocence—was a relatively recent development. (Before the 15th century, Ari╦s argued, they were simply regarded as small young people with some modest physical limitations.) For others, it is Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, who believed that children’s logic and modes of thinking are entirely different from those of adults, and whose work influenced a generation of developmental psychologists.

But, as Zuckerman points out: “Every-thing we thought we knew a generation ago—the most exciting, the most sophisticated ideas about childhood—were now being called into question.” And so the book—and this interview.

continued

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Copyright 2002 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 7/01/02

 

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj