GS 554 — Constructing Youth

It’s day two of the summer Experienced Teacher Institute, “Coming of Age: The Culture and Literature of Youth in America.” Participants are reading and discussing selections from Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood by Steven Mintz. Mintz’s history of childhood in America presents and challenges the following five myths:

  1. The notion of childhood as a carefree and idyllic time unencumbered by adult realities such as illness, death, and war.
  2. The notion of the home and family as a source of stability in a changing world.
  3. The idea that experiences of childhood are the same for all children regardless of class, ethnicity, geography, etc.
  4. The notion that the United States is a particularly child-friendly society.
  5. Varying notions of a significant decline or progression in childhood over time.

Mintz presents evidence that challenges each of these myths as he discusses three historical divisions of experiences of childhood. According to Mintz, the premodern view of childhood coincided with Puritanism and colonialism and was characterized by viewing children as corrupt potential sinners. In this period, a parent or educator’s main responsibility included disciplining and evangelizing children. However, Mintz is careful to point out that Native American children generally had a very different experience. No generalization about trends in childhood holds true in all cases. The modern childhood spanned roughly from the late 1800s to the 1950s. As families¬† became increasingly smaller and infant mortality rates dropped, the development of a sheltered middle class childhood arose. Thinkers such as John Locke began to view childhood as an important stage of development, and the idea of parental duty shifted from an overwhelming emphasis on discipline to an ideal of producing democratic, self-governing citizens. This time period was also characterized by a shift from physical punishment to psychological methods of disciplining children and modifying behavior. Finally, Mintz identifies the postmodern childhood as a time marked by the increasing breakdown of dominant norms such as the patriarchal family unit. In addition to fundamental changes to the family structure, the 1970s – 80s witnessed the development of a consumer culture aimed entirely at adolescents.

In discussion of the readings, participants of the institute have continually made connections to their own childhood experiences and their role as educators and – for some of them – parents. We have identified several themes and key questions to carry into our next readings:

Themes:

  • The tendency of our national attitudes about children and education to swing like a pendulum, and to overcorrect in hopes of tamping down unintended consequences, thereby often bringing about additional layers of unintended consequences.
  • The tendency of our approach to children and education to focus on a search for a panacea.
  • The insufficiently recognized importance of teacher-student relationships in the learning process.

Questions:

  • How much freedom do you have within your position to navigate meaningful student-teacher relationships?
  • Do you feel empowered to make a meaningful difference in the lives of your students? What role do each of the following elements play in relation to your sense of empowerment or powerlessness as a teacher: relationships, student performance on standardized tests, monetary incentives/merit pay?
  • How have economic trends through the 20th century shaped our understanding of public education today?
  • What choices have we made about children and education from a standpoint of fear and anxiety?
  • How has the formation and inculcation of traditional gender roles shaped current experiences of childhood and education?
  • Have any of our choices about children and education been commercially driven?
  • What might the continued popularity of children’s fantasy literature reveal about the reality of a postmodern childhood?

Please consider leaving a response as an extension of our class discussion.

Here’s a link to information about Mintz’s text.

2 replies on “GS 554 — Constructing Youth”

  1. I’m finding this class fascinating. The most salient “aha!” is that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Children throughout the ages appear to have the same fears and aspirations, but they experience them differently and respond to the differently. Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself here because I’m thinking of the digital age I’m reading about at the moment.

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