Saturday, December 08, 2012

Childhood and Culture

What's in a Childhood?

“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Four years ago I attended a lecture by Seth Lerer, Professor of English at Stanford University, on Children's Literature presented at the Newberry Library.  He discussed the literature of childhood with examples of iconic books.  I was reminded of this lecture yesterday when I heard Katia Mitova, Instructor, Basic Program, the University of Chicago, discuss "What's in a Childhood?", at the First Friday Lecture presented by the University of Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Center.
In her lecture Ms. Mitova focused on six ways of looking at childhood:  As a period in life; as a way of being; as an historical concept; metaphorically; ideally; and as an archetype.  Briefly the period she identified as childhood was the ages of 3 years to 12 years old.  It is this period of one's lifespan that is usually referred to as childhood.  The question presented in the lecture was how we should look at this.  As a beginning?  Is it a ladder from which one falls into adolescence and adulthood, never to return?  Or can life be looked at like an archipelago with islands of experience that can be visited and revisited?  She discussed the concept of a goal-oriented life contrasted with a process-oriented life as one aimed at "good deed" or "good reasons", respectively, as presented in the work of Donald Woods Winnicott (Playing and Reality, 1971). 
Poetic references were an important part of the lecture.  For example, the concept of childhood as a "way of being" was introduced with William Wordsworth's famous poem, "My heart leaps up when I behold", which contains the ironic line "The child is father to the man".  Childhood as metaphor may be seen in Alexis de Tocqueville's conception as America as a child of Europe in his work Democracy in America.  Childhood as an ideal ranges from the notion of childhood innocence, Rousseau's depiction of childhood, or the questions of childhood that mimic those of philosopher of any age, such as  "Why is there something rather than nothing?"
This wide-ranging lecture touched on the notion of happiness in Aristotle and Plato's discussions of play; but Ms. Mitova also referenced the ideas of Gareth Mathews as he presented in The Philosophy of Childhood.  Other ideas considered the notion of the freedom of childhood and the loss of it with the onset of compliance with rules and structures during late childhood and adolescence.  
Can we recapture or reexperience the outlook of a child at play?  Perhaps we can, as Johan Huizinga suggests in his famous book, Homo Ludens:  "The child plays in complete--we can well say, in sacred--earnest."  For the adult, "The player can abandon himself body and soul to the game, and consciousness of its being 'merely' a game can be thrust into the background.  The joy inextricably bound up with playing can turn not only into tension, but into elation." (pp. 18, 20-21)

Image at top from Charles Dickens Museum

Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga.  Beacon Press, 1955.

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