recentpopularlog in

robertogreco : rebeccaonion   3

The History of American Childhood / Backlist
"Contemporary American attitudes about childhood are rife with paradox. We’re convinced that our children are overprotected (this is a sentiment that seems politics-proof, reaching across party lines), yet parents find it impossible to step back from the many protective measures put in place over the past century. (Who wants to be the first one on the block to let their kid walk to school alone?) Or how about this: we’re convinced that our children are overprotected, yet 22 percent of American children live in families whose household incomes fall beneath the poverty level. These children, as well as black kids like Tamir Rice (shot to death by police at age twelve), are denied the protections accorded their upper- and middle-class counterparts. What is “childhood innocence,” and who gets to benefit from it?

Historians of childhood can offer crucial context, showing how children’s lives have changed over time. But the field of childhood studies, which blends a strong historical perspective with critical assessment of the evolution of attitudes and ideologies around childhood, is full of interesting theoretical approaches to the kinds of paradoxes above.

Here are ten books that can help you figure out how we came to be so confused about childhood.


Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004).

This is a synthetic history of childhood that surveys a lot of finer-grained historical work on the social, political, and cultural changes that have affected American children’s lives between the colonial period and the present. Huck’s Raft is a great starting point if you want to know the historical basics—What was it like to be an enslaved child? What kinds of protections did children working in industrial workplaces have? When did a majority of American children gain access to public school?—and offers a solid bibliography with leads to the foundational work in the field.

Ann Hulbert, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children (2003).

Another broad history, this one of American parenting advice in the twentieth century, amplifies some of the discussions in Huck’s Raft. Hulbert traces the influence of religion, psychology, and social science on American ideas about the proper shape of a good childhood. The sources Hulbert taps—infant-care manuals, government pamphlets, the famous Dr. Spock—are invaluable in revealing how concepts about childhood manifested themselves in pragmatic advice to those directly responsible for children’s care. Raising America, which is a trade book written by a journalist, is also very fun to read.

Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children (1985).

A book by a sociologist that you will find cited in almost every history of American childhood, Pricing the Priceless Child has a simple and irresistible thesis: just as American children were removed from the workforce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, becoming what Zelizer calls “economically useless,” they were sentimentalized—made “emotionally priceless.” Zelizer looks at life insurance rates and the outcomes of wrongful death suits, showing through the seemingly impersonal records of courts and actuaries how children’s lives took on new significance.

Carolyn Steedman, Strange Dislocations: Childhood and the Idea of Human Interiority, 1780-1930 (1995).

When I took a graduate seminar in childhood studies with Julia Mickenberg at the University of Texas at Austin, she assigned this dense book, which initially terrified and then deeply engaged everyone in the class. Steedman looks at the way the figure of Mignon, the child acrobat character who appears in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6), popped up across genres in the nineteenth century. But Steedman also taps archives of performance, medicine, science, law, and psychology, drawing connections between Mignon’s various appearances in literature and on stage and new ideas about what it might mean to have a self. I’m including this as a “Places to Start” book, despite its high level of difficulty, because it is a book that shows how ambitious childhood studies can be.


Karen Sánchez-Eppler, Dependent States: The Child’s Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture (2005).

Most of the books on this list are about the twentieth century, but Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s Dependent States is (like the Steedman) an inspiring example of how to write about the theory of childhood within a specific historical period. Sanchez Eppler shows how nineteenth-century American adults thought through ideas about dependence, freedom, and citizenship by using children—real and fictional—as exemplars. The author is also great at writing about the way we can, or can’t, hear the voices of children while writing the history of childhood—another theoretical question that will pop up in most childhood studies books.

Kenneth B. Kidd, Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (2004).

Starting at the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists and self-appointed “boy workers” at organizations like the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and 4-H conversed among themselves regarding the correct conditions necessary for the production of an “upstanding” American boy. There are other histories of the Boy Scouts that are more complete, but Kidd’s book explores the way that ideas about ferality and domesticity, stemming from psychoanalysis and literature, shaped the pronouncements of those put in charge of “making boys.” Kidd makes it clear that the normative ideas about gender and age that still govern our conversations about growing up had deep roots in this era.

Nicholas Sammond, Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960 (2005).

More work on constructed ideas of normality, but in this case intertwined most fascinatingly with a history of Disney. We commonly think of media as a corrupter of children, but Sammond shows how, in the early evolution of the American children’s media marketplace, developmental science was a key player. Disney’s ability to market itself as Better For Children was made possible by its alliance with social scientists who claimed knowledge of children’s minds, and its evocation of ideals of patriotism that focused on the child as the symbolic American. Read along with the Hulbert for maximum impact.

Marta Gutman and Ning De Coninck-Smith, eds. Designing Modern Childhoods: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Children (2008).

A collection of essays about twentieth-century purpose-built environments for children, ranging across the United States and the world. Each essay, whether by a social historian or a historian of architecture or design, keys into the idea outlined in John R. Gillis’s epilogue on “The Islanding of Children”: kids in Western cultures have been increasingly sidelined in “mythical landscapes” of their own. Essays on postwar “adventure playgrounds” in the UK, children’s hospitals in Canada, and birthday parties in the United States offer scope for imagination.


Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004).

This book left blisters on the hands of my grad school reading group when we tackled it while preparing for oral exams. It’s probably the most abstract of the titles I have recommended here (it’s not really a history). Many books in childhood studies explore the way children come to stand in for “the future”—especially white, middle-class children—and talk about what that has meant for the shape of American politics and literature, and for children themselves. Edelman looks at that common association and shows how it’s been deployed against queerness. The argument turned everything we had been reading about on its head, in a most satisfying way.

Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (2011).

The paradigms of performance studies come to bear on childhood in Bernstein’s book about violence, innocence, and race. The idea of childhood innocence—another through-line in the literature of childhood studies—was crafted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Bernstein shows how the quality came to adhere to white children rather than black—trying to illustrate everyday attitudes by analyzing material and visual culture, and making arguments about how their uses transferred these qualities of innocence to their users. You will never look at a Raggedy Ann doll the same way again."
books  booklists  rebeccaonion  history  childhood  children  stevenmintz  annhulbert  vivianazelizer  carolynsteedman  karensánchez-eppler  kennethkidd  nicholas  sammond  martagutman  ningdeconinck-smith  leeedelman  robinbernstein  race  gender  queer  queerness  feral  boys  us  culture  society 
december 2015 by robertogreco
We need to ditch generational labels – Rebecca Onion – Aeon
"Generational thinking is seductive and confirms preconceived prejudices, but it’s a bogus way to understand the world"

"But in real life, I find generational arguments infuriating. Overly schematised and ridiculously reductive, generation theory is a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history. It encourages us to focus on vague ‘generational personalities’, rather than looking at the confusing diversity of social life. Since I’m a ‘Gen-X’er born in 1977, the conventional wisdom is that I’m supposed to be adaptable, independent, productive, and to have a good work/life balance. Reading these characteristics feels like browsing a horoscope. I see myself in some of these traits, and can even feel a vague thrill of belonging when I read them. But my ‘boomer’ mother is intensely productive; my ‘Greatest Generation’ grandmother still sells old books online at age 90, in what I consider to be the ultimate show of adaptability and independence.

enerational thinking doesn’t frustrate everyone. Indeed, there is a healthy market for pundits who can devise grand theories of generational difference. Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069 (1991) and founders of the consulting firm LifeCourse Associates in Virginia, have made a fine living out of generational assessments, but their work reads like a deeply mystical form of historical explanation. (Strauss died in 2007; Howe continues to run the consultancy LifeCourse.) The two have conceived an elaborate and totalising theory of the cycle of generations, which they argue come in four sequential and endlessly repeating archetypes.

In the Strauss-Howe schema, these distinct groups of archetypes follow each other throughout history thus: ‘prophets’ are born near the end of a ‘crisis’; ‘nomads’ are born during an ‘awakening’; ‘heroes’ are born after an ‘awakening’, during an ‘unravelling’; and ‘artists’ are born after an ‘unravelling’, during a ‘crisis’. Strauss and Howe select prominent individuals from each generation, pointing to characteristics that define them as archetypal – heroes are John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan; artists: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson; prophets: John Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln; nomads: John Adams, Ulysses Grant. Each generation has a common set of personal characteristics and typical life experiences.

Plenty of kids at less-privileged schools weren’t intensely worried about grades or planning, like the stereotypical millennial

The archetypal scheme is also a theory of how historical change happens. The LifeCourse idea is that the predominance of each archetype in a given generation triggers the advent of the next (as the consultancy’s website puts it: ‘each youth generation tries to correct or compensate for what it perceives as the excesses of the midlife generation in power’). Besides having a very reductive vision of the universality of human nature, Strauss and Howe are futurists; they predict that a major crisis will occur once every 80 years, restarting the generational cycle. While the pair’s ideas seem far-fetched, they have currency in the marketplace: LifeCourse Associates has consulted for brands such as Nike, Cartoon Network, Viacom and the Ford Motor Company; for universities including Arizona State, Dartmouth, Georgetown and the University of Texas, and for the US Army, too.

The commercial success of this pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo is irritating, but also troubling. The dominant US thinkers on the generational question tend to flatten social distinctions, relying on cherry-picked examples and reifying a vision of a ‘society’ that’s made up mostly of the white and middle-class. In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009 on the pundits and consultants who market information about ‘millennials’ to universities, Eric Hoover described Howe and Strauss’s influential book about that generation, Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (2000), as a work ‘based on a hodgepodge of anecdotes, statistics, and pop-culture references’ with the only new empirical evidence being a body of around 600 interviews of high-school seniors, all living in wealthy Fairfax County, Virginia.

Hoover interviewed several people in higher education who voiced their doubts about the utility of Howe and Strauss’s approach. Their replies, informed by their experience teaching college students from across the socioeconomic spectrum, show how useless the schematic understanding of ‘millennials’ looks when you’re working with actual people. Palmer H Muntz, then the director of admissions of Lincoln Christian University in Illinois, noticed that plenty of kids he encountered on visits to less-privileged schools weren’t intensely worried about grades or planning, like the stereotypical millennial. Fred A Bonner II, now at Prairie View A & M University in Texas, pointed out that many of the supposed ‘personality traits’ of coddled and pressured millennials were unrecognisable to his black or Hispanic students, or those who grew up with less money. Siva Vaidhyanathan, a cultural historian and media scholar at the University of Virginia, told Hoover: ‘Generational thinking is just a benign form of bigotry.’"

"Ryder had harsh words for the theorists he called ‘generationists’. He argued that thinkers about generation on a large scale had made illogical leaps when theorising the relationship between generations and social change. ‘The fact that social change produces intercohort differentiation and thus contributes to inter-generational conflict,’ he argued, ‘cannot justify a theory that social change is produced by that conflict.’ There was no way to prove causality. The end result, he wrote, was that grand generational theories tended toward ‘arithmetical mysticism.’"

"As the French historian Pierre Nora wrote in 1996, the careful analyst trying to talk about generations will always struggle: ‘The generational concept would make a wonderfully precise instrument if only its precision didn’t make it impossible to apply to the unclassifiable disorder of reality.’ The problem with transferring historical and sociological ways of thinking about generational change into the public sphere is that ‘unclassifiability’ is both terrifying and boring. Big, sweeping explanations of social change sell. Little, careful studies of same-age cohorts, hemmed in on all sides by rich specificity, do not.

Perhaps the pseudoscientific use of supposed ‘generations’ would irk less if it weren’t so often used to demean the young. Millennials, consultants advise prospective employers, feel entitled to good treatment even in entry-level jobs, because they’ve been overpraised their whole lives. Millennials won’t buckle down and buy cars or houses, economists complain; millennials are lurking in their parents’ basements, The New Yorker cartoon stereotype runs, tweeting and texting and posting selfies and avoiding responsibility."

"Popular millennial backlash against the stereotyping of their generation makes use of the same arguments against generational thinking that sociologists and historians have spent years developing. By drawing attention to the effects of the economic situation on their lives, pointing out that human experience isn’t universal and predictable, and calling upon adults to abandon broad assessments in favour of specific understanding, millennials prove the point: generational thinking is seductive, and for some of us it confirms our preconceived prejudices, but it’s fatally flawed as a mode of understanding the world. Real life is not science fiction."
rebeccaonion  generationalthinking  generations  age  ageism  complexity  humans  society  adaptability  independence  history  individuals  neilhowe  williamstrauss  stereotypes  lifecourse  palmermuntz  sivavaidhyanathan  agesegregation  millenials  genx  generationx  generationy  erichoover  karlmannheimaugusteconte  gottfriedleibniz  normanryder  sociology  causality  robertwohl  pierrenora  bigotry  generationalwarfare  malcolmharris  digitalnatives  hypocrisy  via:ayjay 
may 2015 by robertogreco
@HistoryInPics, @HistoricalPics, @History_Pics: Why the wildly popular Twitter accounts are bad for history.
["“I know what this is!” vs “I wonder what this is about?” - @rebeccaonion on shallow history vs historical discovery."

"We need more things in this world that make us end our sentences in question marks instead of exclamation points." ]

"These caveats aside, Werner’s cry—“These accounts piss me off because they undermine an enterprise I value”—resonates deeply with me. Lack of attribution for the artists who took the photos these accounts use is only the beginning of the problem. By failing to provide context, offering a repetitive and restricted view of what “history” is, and never linking to the many real historical resources available on the Web, these accounts strip history of the truly fun parts: curiosity, detective work, and discovery.

"Attribution, meanwhile, isn’t just about giving credit to a creator. A historical document was produced by somebody, at some time, under certain conditions. To historians these details, and the questions they provoke, are what give historical documents dimension. As John Overholt, the curator of early modern books and manuscripts at Harvard’s Houghton Library (and an avid Twitterer and Tumblrer), said to me via email:
Every image is also an artifact—it has a creator, a context, and, in the era of film photography at least, a physical original that sits in a repository somewhere. Divorced from all that metadata, a stream of historical images is always going to be a shallow experience.

By not linking to sources or context, history pic accounts create an impression of history as a glossy, impervious façade."

"When she posted her rant on the history-pics phenomenon, the Folger’s Sarah Werner received pushback on Twitter, and was accused of being “against fun.” But a critique of this mode of history-on-Twitter is actually the opposite of elitist schoolmarmery. By posting the same types of photographs over and over and omitting context and links, these accounts are robbing readers of the joy of the historical rabbit hole—and they’re taking a dim, condescending view of the public’s appetite for complexity and breadth of interest.

In my capacity as blogger for the Vault, I spend a lot of time in (free!) digital archives, on the blogs of libraries and museums, and on sites produced by historians working inside and outside of the academy. A delirious pleasure of historical inquiry, on- and offline, lies in the twists and turns: You think you’re writing about children’s encyclopedias from the 1920s, and at the end of the day you’re researching the primatologist Robert Yerkes. This joy is easier than ever for anyone to experience, given the ever-growing body of linked information and original documents available on the Web.

I’m under no illusion that every blog reader follows the links I include to the archives where I find documents, or that every Twitter follower clicks on the links I put in @SlateVault tweets. But if they do, and they land in a digital archive or on a blog, they might see a slider pointing to related documents, a right rail with links to intriguing past posts, or an appealing subject heading. Or, they might decide to plug some of the information they find into Google Books, and see whether anything fun surfaces.

My hope is that I’m providing a starting point, not an end point, with each post. I never know for sure if what sparks my own curiosity will kindle a similar fire with readers, but if it does, I want readers to be able to pursue the subject beyond the confines of my short posts and tweets. The history-pics accounts give no impression of even knowing this web of legitimate, varied historical content exists. Given their huge follower counts, this is a missed opportunity—for their readers, and for the historians and archivists who would thrill to larger audiences for their work."
2014  history  curiosity  rebeccaonion  sarahwerner  @HistoryInPics  @HistoricalPics  @History_Pics  johnoverholt  questioning  askingquestions  attribution  context  mattnovak  truth  twitter  alexismadrigal  discovery  learning  complexity  artifacts  bestpractices  tumblr  research  howweshare  internet  web  online  questionasking 
february 2014 by robertogreco

Copy this bookmark:

to read