JF Ptak Science Books Post 2745
Another piece of great serendipity fell from the sky, again this week, this time on the idea of the history of childhood--more accurately, it is on the history of kindness extended to children. The idea of looking at childhood in that way lies in the work, for example, of Phillipe Aires (Centuries of Childhood, first French edition 1960) and Lloyd deMause (The History of Childhood, 1974), among others, who maintain that kindness towards children is a modern invention. (This is kind of wildly brief statement of this idea--suffice to say though that the treatment of children through long history has not been necessarily "kind". For example, the word "childhood" appears only twice in the Bible (KJV), and really only once in reference to what childhood might have been rather than a simple statement regarding a period of human life. That occurs in Ecclesiastes 11:10: “Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.” This is in line with an older variety of that book, the Cloverdale Bible, in Ecclesiastes xii. “A Childehode and youth is but vanite” which again makes the point of childhood being something to get away from rather than a chance to improve the life of the new person. The Oxford English Dictionary takes the word back to Middle English times, but even into the 19th century I can't really point to an applicable use of the word in connection to this discussion.)
The issue came up while listening to a public reading by my wife's (Patti Digh) favorite living author, Richard Powers. He was taking questions after a lovely read from his newest, called The Overstory, when a question came to him regarding human-like senses in animals. Powers responded saying that all was possible, seeing as how people question those human qualities in other human beings. He used the term “Anthropomorphism of Man”, which I found fantastic, as he was correct. For centuries certain people simply weren't regarded on the same human level as other people (those people doing the judging). For example, in the U.S., women, African Americans, the poor, Asians, and so on from a long list, have only recently been elevated to the prospect of “sameness” with those in power in this country. Before this, they were something “lesser”. And it was here that Powers offered “children” as not being children, not even a full human, for most of the history of humans, and so only recently come into their own as full humans.
Then came the serendipity.
I was browsing through one of the 30 volumes or so of an Amsterdam-published 17th century magazine/journal called Bibliotheque Universelle looking for articles of scientific interest. There's a lot in these little bricks of books, and they do have some occasionally good (and great) scientific efforts in them, the one I was working on, one of several volumes for the Principia year of 1687 (July 5), yielded nothing of any great sci-interest in its 500+ pages. Then, I spotted it, just a simple four lines of 6-point type in the 5”-tall book: “Fenelon, de l'Education de filles...” That's François de Salignac de La Mothe- Fénelon, of Telemachus (son of Ulysses, etc.) fame, and his book was on the education of daughters. It was published the year before, in 1686, and the editors of the Bibliotheque gave it 14 pages or so of review and explanation.
It seems to me from this reading that in this account—really on education of children in general--M. Fenelon was an advanced thinker, a human human-rights person, treating children and their education as individuals, with understanding, and kindness.
Evidently the man speaks to curiosity and rational amusement in the book—that curiosity must precede the rational, and that one must be careful in doing that, because there is a danger of “imitation”--curiosity is the thing that banishes ennui.
At the same time instruction must be realistic, so that once mature and grown that the real world is not a total shock, and that once subjected to the daily routine of “housewifery” there will be no denouement from the dreams of childhood—all of that seems like a pretty sticky wicket. Fenelon did seem to insist on the beginning of education from infancy, but not to overdo the instruction as that would “oppress the facilities”.
Perhaps the most surprising positive thing of them all to me was Fenelon's insistence on being careful with your words with the mature child, and to never be guilty of a falsehood with children, which is pretty good and sane advice.
There's other stuff that doesn't translate any longer into where we are today, but there seems to be a lot of material that is timeless.