Thursday, September 14, 2006

Our Dark Materials

In England, a group of teachers, child psychologists, and children’s authors (including Philip Pullman, author of the fine trilogy His Dark Materials) have written a letter of concern announcing that modernity is “poisoning” childhood.

"We are deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children's behavioural and developmental conditions. Since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust as full-grown adults can, to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change.

"They need what developing human beings have always needed, including real food (as opposed to processed "junk"), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen based entertainment), first hand experience of the world they live in and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.
And a pony.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Our culture is a soul-annihilating nightmare, as I’ve argued elsewhere, and the effect it has on children is grounds for real concern.

That said, although the notion of the capitalist "invention of childhood" has surely been overemphasized, what we typically sentimentalize as “childhood” does require, to quote Herman Melville, “Time, Strength, Cash and Patience.” The UK's idealized concept of childhood is - like America's - essentially Victorian, and its foundational concept of “innocence” is anything but innocent. (Who but the guilty or unhappy would idealize a state of pre-knowledge?)

Sue Palmer, who circulated the letter, makes an interesting claim:
"Children’s development is being drastically affected by the kind of world they are brought up in," Palmer told the Daily Telegraph. "It is shocking."
Is it, really? It sounds to me like just about what you'd expect.

Where you find sentimentality, you often find a brutal reality it's intended to soften. I'm not sure it's sensible to think that we can build a shelter for children out of the dark materials of our culture, where they'll be allowed to wallow in wholesome, innocent wonder until they're old enough to consider the works of Ayn Rand and Niall Ferguson.

An anecdote from Thomas De Quincey’s childhood – which he calls an “introduction to the world of strife” - is revealing, in this context:
Both my brother and myself, for the sake of varying our intellectual amusements, occupied ourselves at times in governing imaginary kingdoms….

My own kingdom was an island called Gombroon. But in what parallel of north or south latitude it lay, I concealed for a time…for I was determined to place a monstrous world of waters between us as the only chance (and a very poor one it proved) for compelling my brother to keep the peace.
De Quincey also made Gombroon small and poor, with no natural resources. But this was no protection against his brother’s marauding kingdom of Tigrosylvania:
It seemed that vast horns and promontories ran down from all parts of his dominions towards any country whatsoever, in either hemisphere,—empire or republic, monarchy, polyarchy, or anarchy,—that he might have reasons for assaulting. Here in one moment vanished all that I had relied on for protection: distance I had relied on, and suddenly I was found in close neighborhood to my most formidable enemy. Poverty I had relied on, and that was not denied: he granted the poverty, but it was dependent on the barbarism of the Gombroonians. It seems that in the central forests of Gombroonia there were diamond mines, which my people, from their low condition of civilization, did not value, nor had any means of working….

O reader, do not laugh! I lived forever under the terror of two separate wars in two separate worlds: one against the factory boys, in a real world of flesh and blood, of stones and brickbats, of flight and pursuit…. the other in a world purely aerial, where all the combats and the sufferings were absolute moonshine. And yet the simple truth is, that, for anxiety and distress of mind, the reality…was as nothing in comparison of that dream kingdom….
De Quincey faced one final humiliation as king of Gombroon: the discovery that its people had tails:
My brother…published an extract from some scoundrel’s travels in Gombroon, according to which the Gombroonians had not yet emerged from this early condition of apedom. They, it seems, were still homines caudati. Overwhelming to me and stunning was the ignominy of this horrible discovery.
Now, I have to confess that I’m quoting this story at length mainly because I find it funny. Still, it’s a fascinating example of how easily political economy can find its way into children’s “pretty fancies” (or vice versa, for all I know). And though De Quincey doesn't mention it, I think it's pretty clear that the children of Tigrosylvania are more likely to enjoy a leisurely childhood than those of Gombroon.

There's no denying that children everywhere ought to have more time "for reading, for dreaming, for music, for drama, for art, and simply for playing." But it's not clear what actual changes these rather Mandarin pronouncements are supposed to effect, or what they really signify in a world where so many millions of children face much more serious threats than addiction to videogames...especially given the connection between the “Time, Strength, Cash and Patience" an ideal childhood demands, and the economic ideal of sweatshops and child labor.


Rmj said...

I am reminded of a comment in one of Mortimer's "Rumpole" stories (the best questions are always in fiction), where Rumpole wonders where the term "teenager" came from, as he was never considered one.

We already impose a great deal on children, simply by labelling them "children," or "adolescents," or "teenagers," or, in my childhood "juveniles" (as in "delinquents").

I still blame Romanticism. It was Wordsworth, after all, not Freud, who first told us "The child is father to the man."

Phila said...

I still blame Romanticism. It was Wordsworth, after all, not Freud, who first told us "The child is father to the man."

We've got to get those damned Lake poets out of the schools, before it's too late!

I'm sure there's some truth to what you say, regardless of whether I'm actually up to understanding it on this dreary afternoon.

I certainly agree that "childhood" and its variants are arbitrary designations that cause problems in and of themselves.